In the field of art history, the word “formalist” is often used as a club to denigrate what is perceived to be dazzling visually but empty of substance. It is a critical stance that was solidified in the early 20th century by Roger Fry, for whom the painter Paul Cézanne was the summa of modern painting and John Singer Sargent its nadir (a prejudice that persists to this day). I write about both these painters, working to unsettle an idea that persists not only in art history but in a number of fields within the humanities and social sciences: that “form” is a superficial distraction that masks, preempts or outright obstructs “meaning.”
Past research has included a book about the domestic interior in 19th c painting as a site for deeply contested notions of bourgeois subjectivity; an essay on Manet’s inexpressive but commanding faces; a study of the competitively “painted” skin of the professional beauty, Madame X by Sargent; and a book about the portraits Cézanne painted of his wife, Hortense, who served as his most significant ‘other’
In a new book project underway, I consider the “medical portrait” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a special concentration on photographs of the mentally ill, analyzing how the formal conventions of portraiture—both painted and photographic—inflected the “authenticity” of the clinical image. In Skins: John Singer Sargent’s Metamorphoses, I argue for a new way to conceptualize and historicize this artist’s virtuoso paint application. Rather than explain it as Gilded Age excess, I argue that in his later portraits, the artist orchestrated those layers of paint to operate as dynamically intersecting skins. The figure woven into its setting seems forever suspended in a state of simultaneous becoming and disintegration in which skin, hair, and fabric dissolve only to be reconstituted as other, more ambiguous substances: a visualization of Darwin’s observation that we are all “of the same flesh.” In the post-Darwinian world, most assumed the existence of profound—even if invisible—connections among all organic beings. Writers of every stripe—Walter Pater, Grant Allen, William James, Henry James, and Vernon Lee—all members of the Sargent’s extended circle, theorized about the nature of those connections. The artist’s vigorous, transformational paint handling dissolved the distinctions between his subjects’ physical “selves” and the trappings that consolidated their social identities. In painting a social class that was ceding its authority, he invented visual structures for things that were falling apart.