Art of peace

oleg dergachov ukrainian artist peace
Oleg Dergachov, Etching

I chose this image by the Canadian-Ukrainian artist Oleg Dergachov because it speaks to a constructive attitude that defines my own art practice. I’m a realist painter because I want my art to say something.

Modernism took force in North America under a growing anti-communist and anti-Russia sentiment. The American government sponsored and promoted the movement in opposition to socialist-realism. Clement Greenberg’s seminal text, the Avant-Gard and Kitsch, makes the cold war politics that co-opted the movement explicit.

A side effect, American social realism (like Ashcan school) fell out of favour. If we look back at post-war American art, its focus is aesthetic. There is very little art that comments on America’s involvement in War, issues of civil rights or labour issues.

It’s only recently with a return to realism have artists like Kehinde Wiley or Kent Monkman have brought social politics back to art.

I worry that current rhetoric around war is focused around retaliation and not resolution. We have spent the better half of a century with a retaliation mindset and we are still fighting the same war.

I stand with all those people who have directly suffered from these ongoing wars and I am asking my government and my society to try a new approach. I don’t want tough leaders, I want strong leaders who have the courage to believe and work towards peace.

Rokeby Distance Drawing: Gibson Girls

Get ready for a total art history nerd post! The Rokeby Museum has given me access to their archive and I have been digging through the letters and images of Rachael Robinson (a 19th century illustrator).

Charles Gibson Rachael Robsinon Elmer Courtney Clinton
The Sweetest Story Ever Told, C. 1910, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

As a teenager Rachael studied drawing in New York with her teacher Ernest Knaufft. In one of her letters back home she writes about seeing an exhibition of work by Charles Dana Gibson (image 2). From her letter we know that his work had a big impact on her art!

There is a new exhibition of Gibson’s pen drawing a little way from Mr. Knaufft. I have been twice, they are grand. I wish thee could have seen them. Some of them sell for $2.00. They are very large. Some 3 by 2 feet. I should think he is a young man yet. Some of his lines, on faces especially, are so fine you can scarcely see them. They have to be sent to Paris to be reproduced.

— Rachael Robinson Elmer to Robinson Family, March 5, 1893

Gibson was famous for his images of ‘modern womanhood’. At the turn of the century American women had better access to education and work possibilities than they had in the past. The role of the woman was changing and Gibson captured this evolution in his art.

rachael robsinon elmer ann robinson pen and ink charles gibson
Portrait of Ann Stevens Robinson Reading, c. 1891–1900, Pen and Ink, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919)

As an art student Elmer student and drew sketches of her relatives. The above image shows her mother Ann reading the pages of her father’s manuscript. Her author father was nearly blind at this point and her mother played a central role in his writing process. She corrected and re-transcribed his writing and corresponded with his editors.

gibson rachael robinson pen and ink
L to R: Portrait of Rachel Byrd Stevens, c. 1893–1903, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919), Box 19, Image 3357; Head of a Girl, c. 1882–1935, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress

In a sense both artists recorded a modern image of womanhood. Yet they couldn’t feel more different. Elmer’s women feel old fashion compared to the “Gibson Girls”. But given a little context, her image of Ann is a much truer example of a woman at work.

Gibson’s depiction of 20th century womanhood isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s limited. He depicts the women he saw and knew in his affluent New York circle. Elmer’s art helps broaden our understanding of what social change meant for a different part of the country. Of course neither artist tells us much about the condition of BIPOC from this period. For me this comparison highlights the importance of seeking out new voices from history.

Drawing Challenge: Composition

For this week’s challenge I’m calling on all abstract artists to join us! This exercise is a crash course in composition. We are going to learn how to place the different elements of a drawing. The purpose is to come up with a system to insure that our pictures have an interesting and engaging design. Today’s challenge is a kind of analytical approach to creativity.

We are going to learn the thumbnail approach to help overcome the stress induced by the dreaded white page!

What is soooo cool about today’s lesson is that it can be applied to both realist and abstract art. So in a way I’m going to challenge the misnomer that these two genres of art are somehow separate!

Choosing our source material

For today’s challenge we are going to borrow elements from two old master ink drawings.

We are going to use part of the Roman ruin from the drawing below:

And you can choose one of the following characters drawn by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo:

Simplifying and flattening our main shapes

We are going to do a series of very small, quick, drawings so it is important to simplify our main shapes. No detail. We want to reduce each element into a flat shape we can draw in less than 30 secounds.


Often I will get really excited about an idea I have for a drawing and I will start a very finished version before trying out different approaches. I will get two-thirds of the way through my drawing and all of a sudden a better composition will hit me.

By taking the time to rough out a bunch of small versions of our final drawing, we avoid this kind of mistake. Also it’s a great exercise to start to develop your own personal aesthetic or theory of design. Our goal is to do somewhere between 6 and 12 quick sketches. We want to try out a variety of different compositions.

Placement of shapes

First step is to block out a rectangles on a blank page. It should measure about 2 inches or the length of your thumb. Keep your thumbnail small. By keeping it small we make it impossible to include detail in out drawing. At this stage detail is our enemy.

Start by making your rectangle into an evenly spaced grid. Create three equal columns and three equal rows. Drawing corner to corner, draw an X across your rectangle.  Repeat the same process for the next 2 thumbnails. For now keep your rectangles the same shape and dimension.

Using these grids we can think of our canvas in terms of different quadrants. Using your three thumbnails, lets try three different designs where we keep the architectural shape in the top left quadrant. For each drawing lets place our figure shape in a different column.

If you like one of those designs, now try 2 to 3 designs where you keep the figure fixed and instead move your architectural shape from left to right.

Size of shapes

Another way to vary our design is to play with the size of our shapes. Grid out three more thumbnails (3 x 3). Choose your favorite design from the last exercise.

Let’s say your design has the figure in the bottom right of the canvas and the architectural shape in the top left corner. Again let’s keep the architectural shape fixed. In the next two thumbnails, let’s grow our figure. First, Let’s take it all the way to the top row. For our third version, we can actually grow the figure to a size beyond that of the canvas. Let’s make it so big that you only see the lower half of the figure.

Again choose the design you most like and let’s try two new versions where you keep the figure fixed and grow and shrink the architectural shape.

Shape of your canvas

Working this small gives us ultimate freedom. Another great way to inspire new designs is to change the shape of your rectangle. Try flipping your rectangle from a portrait format to a landscape format. Or try varying the proportions of your rectangle. It is amazing how much the shape and orientation of your page will inspire composition!

Using line to guide your design

Instead of using a grid, we can use line to help us think about the spacing and relationship of the different elements in our picture.

A couple lines to keep in mind are:

1. Cross

2. S curve

3. C curve

4. L curve

5. Diagonal line

Start your composition by indicating one of these lines. Now think about how you can place your elements so that their positioning suggests the line. To better understand look at the following example by Andrew Loomis:

Final drawing

The aim is to produce at least 12 different thumbnail designs. Each new design should build on idea discovered in the last sketch. Once you have come up with a really great design, do a larger more finished version of the drawing!

For any abstract artists, why not use this design as a starting point for your next painting? Or you can play with the shapes. Reduce them to something even more simple. Or changes some of the lines from straight to wiggly. The possibilities are endless!

Drawing Challenge : Still Life

Alright it is week two of the #InkCovid19 drawing challenge. Last week we started with a couple master copies. Our aim was to try and deconstruct these drawings. Our aim was to understand how an artist thinks about showing 3D space on a flat surface.

This week the training wheels come off. We are going live. I challenge you guys to work from life! I want you to set up your own still life and try drawing it.

Nothing is more challenging or rewarding than drawing from life. When we work from a photo or another artists drawing part of the job is already done. Those images have flattened space. When you work from life, you have to think about how you can use lines to recreate form and space.

Set up your still life

So to take on this drawing challenge you will need the following items:

  1. Toilet Paper Role
  2. Orange (or any round fruit)
  3. Salt shaker
  4. Thick book
  5. Large book (with limited images or text on cover)

Set up these items using the above image as a reference. Spend some time trying to match the composition. Think about the relationship between the different items. Look at how the orange crops the bottom left corner of the toilet paper role. Look at the salt shaker. Most of it’s form is seen against the table top. Only the top part of the shaker is silhouetted against the purple background.

Getting your still life set up accurate is about practicing your observation skills. It’s about training your eyes to notice these kind of detailed relationships between the different objects we are drawing. All of this information will be used in the drawing process.

Block in: Big to small

Just like we did for our last drawing we are going to start with a very general black in. If you only had 4 or 5 lines how would you represent this group of objects. Think about the highest point (top of the toilet paper) and the lowest point (bottom of the book). Now mark the furthest point to the left (front edge of the book) and the furthest point to the left  (left edge of the slat shaker).

Orange our unit of measurement

Once you have a large general shape we want to start blocking in the different objects. We want to be very careful and make sure we get the right size for each object.

How can we measure that distance? We need a unit of measurement. You can make anything your unit of measurement, for this example let’s use the orange. Stick your arm out nice and straight with a pencil in hand. With one eye closed the pencil can act like a ruler. Using the top of the pencil and your thumb measure the height of the orange. Loosely block in your orange on your page. With a straight arm measure your orange again and use that measurement to get the relative size and placement of the other objects.

If I measure the orange in my picture. I can see that that orange measurement will get me from the top of my orange to the top of my toilet paper. Keep taking measurements and making marks on your paper.

Horizon line and object tops

Now that we have the general shapes of our objects and their placement we want to add some detail. Our initial goal was to show 3D space on a flat piece of paper. The way that we can best express space is to show the volume or the form of each object. This means we want to express the different sides or planes of the objects.

For now we are going to keep things simple. Our goal is to express the top and the sides of of each object.

To do this we have to think about perspective and the horizon line. Again let’s keep things simple. The horizon line represents our eye level of the artist.

Generally speaking where is the horizon line in this drawing? Look at the top side of the toilet paper. Can you see the whole made by the cardboard cylinder? Or look at the orange. Can you see the flower stalk of the orange? Because we can see all of this information that makes up the tops of these objects we know that the horizon line or the eye level is above our still life.

If these objects were placed on a high shelf above our eye level we would not see the top side of our objects.

Back to our drawing, measure the height of the top side of each object compared to it’s vertical sides. A common mistakes when you first do this kind of exercise is to make that top end too small. So measure twice. To make your drawing even more 3D ad some simple shading to the vertical side of each object.

When we get more advanced we will use a lighting set up to make shadows on the objects as a way to indicated the different sides. For now I want us to think analytically. So we are using shade to indicate for our self the difference between the top and vertical sides of each object.

If you get this far, amazing! Move your object around and try a second set up.


Working for an Art School

My Art School Job

I had a somewhat unorthodox art education. I worked for the art school (Syn Studio) where I studied. First as an intern and than as the office manager.

A big part of my job was helping the teachers prepare the set up for their classes. As an intern I would come 20 min before the class and help them set up the lights and the backdrops for the subjects we would draw (we always worked from life). As the manager I trained interns to help with set up.

Learning to Set Up Lighting

All of this meant I learned how to set up and light a still life subject for an academic drawing. Seems like a silly thing to brag or blog about but for me it was a big deal. Doing these set ups week after week, and than drawing them in class, I had a better understanding of what my teachers were trying to communicate with each exercise.

It comes back to this idea of active observation. As artists we are always trying to overcome the temptation to simply copy what we see. Great art should communicate a profound understanding of the subject.

In a very basic exercise like drawing geometric shapes we are trying to understand how light interacts with form. The aim of my shadow box (something I learned to build as an intern) is to block out the light so that only the lamp light is hitting the shapes.

In real life there are very few situations where a subject is only lit from one side. But the knowledge you gain from this exercise becomes a tool for understanding more complex lighting situations.

Laura Muntz and Motherhood

As part of my Toronto trip I had the opportunity to discuss potentially doing an art talk on the work of the Canadian Impressionist painter Laura Muntz and Motherhood. Fingers crossed that it all comes together. I would really love to share the life and work of this wonderful artist.

Artist Laura Muntz

Muntz started her career in the 1880s and was part of a group of Canadian artists who travelled to Paris to train in the world renowned Paris Atelier system. Muntz was paying her own tuition and managed to get work as a teacher’s assistant. This work allowed her to stay on and study in Paris for seven years. On her return to Canada she found success as a portrait artist painting the kids of wealthy Toronto and Montreal patrons. She also showed her narrative paintings at important world fairs including the Louisiana Purchase exhibition in 1904 – where she was awarded a silver medal.

Motherhood for Muntz

In the middle of her career tragedy struck: her sister died leaving behind 11 children. Muntz took up the responsibility of raising the children. For about seven years she all but abandoned her painting practice and embraced motherhood.

What I find so inspirational about Muntz story is that after the children got older and were more independent she went back to her art. She allowed herself a next chapter after motherhood. She made a studio space in the attic and got back to a daily painting routine. Eventually she re-established herself and confirmed her place in Canadian art history.

laura muntz painter canadian art

For me her story reminds me that it’s okay to put motherhood first. I think there is a lot of pressure on all of us to somehow ‘have it all’. The reality is that sometimes we have to make a choice between family and career. What her story also illustrates is that we can always come back. Taking a break from a creative practice is not the same as giving up. Life is long and we can always come back to our dreams. Such a feel-good story no!?!

Shared Culture of Laing and Morrice

New book on the go! Morrice: A Great Canadian Artist Rediscovered is a look at the life of the post-impressionist painter James Morrice by the Canadian art dealer Blair Laing. The book is a two for one deal. We learn about a great painter but Laing also includes tid bits from his life as a dealer.

Laing and Morrice

Laing is about a two generations younger than Morrice. Both men were of Scottish Canadian heritage. And both grew up in the Presbyterian Westmount community. It sounds pretty specific but it was the dominant culture in Canada in the late 19th c. and early 20th c.

In the books first chapter Laing focuses on the life of the painter’s father, David Morrice. He argues the father is a kind of archetype for early Canadian culture. D. Morrice immigrated to Canada ‘with only the clothes on his back’ and made his fortune in the Montreal textile industry.

Influence on Modernism

It was the success of his generation that inspired the nationalist spirit embodied later by the, predominately Anglo-Saxon, Group of Seven. And we can see pretty clearly the influence of artists like Morrice on the groups work.

Of course the prosperity of the industrial age was concentrated. In another book Laing talks about starting out his career by writing to a prosperous Toronto merchant and asking for a job, underscoring their shared Scottish heritage. It’s no surprise that the Catholic French-Canadian Automatists, like Jean-Paul Riopelle, broke with the style of modernists like Morrice and the Group of Seven to assert their own identity.

When we look at the work of these artists it’s not always obvious how culture influenced the work. But learning the history it becomes clear that cultural affiliations plays a role in determining an artists style. My point isn’t to criticize the culture of Morrice or The Group of Seven. What interests me is how this story reveals the quiet power culture has to influence our inner world.

Tarantino and Harron on the Manson Family

Tarantino: Revenge and the Manson Family

brad pitt leonardo dicaprio once upon a time

I made it out to see the latest Quentin Tarantino film, ‘Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood‘. Like so much of his work the film is a cathartic revenge fantasy.

What’s interesting about the film is that the justification for the revenge violence is not something that happens in the film. Instead what makes violence feel cathartic is something we as an audience know about the events the story is based on. We go into the film knowing that the ‘hippies’ are members of the Manson Family. We know that in real life they gruesomely murdered innocent people including Sharon Tate.

In the film Tarantino builds up to the crimes but ultimately changes the story sending the hippies to the wrong house only to meet the hero played by Brad Pitt. In the film, what is presented are three very young kids who surprise Pitt in his friend’s home. They are armed, clearly stoned and we know their intention is violence. But they don’t initiate anything.

Pitt’s response is not only to un-arm the intruders but to kill them. Pitt is a stunt double and Tarantino underscores his physical ability, going as far as stating that he could beat up Bruce Lee. Given his control in a fight situation, I think we have to ask, why does he kill the intruders? Why not just disarm?

As an audience member I know what the real Manson kids did. It’s cathartic to see them pay for their crimes. But, in this fantasy world those kids never get to Sharon Tates home. The director has explicitly decided to change the story. So we can’t know if the kids would have gone through with murder in this universe.

Like everyone else in the theater, I was cheering on the hero. That should give us pause. It says something important about how much of an impact culture (or the stories we hear) has on our perception of reality.

Charlie Says : The Story of the Girls

mary harron charlie says

Building on this idea of the relationship between culture and perception is Mary Harron‘s film ‘Charlie Says‘. The story is based on the lives of the women who participated in the Manson murders. The movie avoids gore and instead asks how a group of ‘good girls’ could do something so vile.

There is this wonderfully uncomfortable tension throughout the film between the girls’ crime and their hippie love personalities. The director never wavers from the narrative that these girls are good people and that they willfully participated in a gruesome murder.

Much of the blame for the crime is put on the isolationist group-think culture of the Manson cult. In the beginning we watch as the community normalizes free-love and drugs for it’s members. Isolated from the rest of the world they start to explain the ills of society through a dooms-day conspiracy – like sex and drugs these beliefs are normalized. Through the conspiracy they identify an enemy (the rich, other ethnic groups). Soon they see themselves as warriors destined to save the group (and the world) by attacking their enemies.

Ultimately the women are convicted and have to face the empty nature of their horrific acts.

Perception and Perspective

Unlike Tarantino’s films where good and evil are portrayed as fixed and binary, Harron’s movie forces the viewer to think about these concepts in more complicated terms.

Far from a nihilistic film, it concludes that certain acts do constitute evil – no matter the intention. In this way it highlights how this idea of ‘intention’ can corrupt our understanding of good and evil. Watching the lives of these girls as they build up to the murder, the director makes the case that intention and perspective are linked. We believe our intentions our good because they will benefit us and our community.

In the same way perception influences how we perceive threat. Right now we have a problem in the society where people are responding with violence to a imagined threat by ‘outsider’ groups. Like our response to Tarantino’s hippies, that fear and resentment is not always based on actual events. It’s often based on some outside information that may or may not be true or relevant to the situation.

Both ‘Charlie Says’ and ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ make a case for the importance of challenging our perspectives.


A Series of Self-Portraits

Selfie, is a series of self-portrait drawings and paintings. When completed, my series will include a combined sixteen drawings and paintings portraying themes of identity. In this work I will explore the tension between the authentic and the ideal in contemporary self-representation.

Working in a traditional style and media, I hope to show how our contemporary dialogue around selfie culture mirrors historic understanding of truth in representational art. Specifically, my work recalls 19th century Naturalism and the art of Cecilia Beaux, Elizabeth Jane Gardner and Ilya Repin. Influenced by both the Realist and Neoclassical schools of art, these artists’ works negotiate a visual and conceptual understanding of truth.

Cecelia Beau painter portrait
Man with Cat, Cecilia Beau, 1898

The era of smartphones has enabled the general population to capture almost every aspect of their lives and share them instantaneously with a global audience. A visual product of this evolution is the selfie, a self-portrait taken with an individual’s camera phone and shared to social media. Associated with “real life” and “live” access the selfie is praised for its authenticity.

Social media apps like instagram stress the importance of authenticity through their design: Instagram users can only upload photos through their personal phone. My own process reflects this devotion to the authentic.

courtney clinton studio

Done in a traditional figurative style my art prioritizes accuracy and is done working directly from life using a mirror. This choice to work from life gives each work unique temporal boundaries. Throughout the series I explore the relationship between time and essence of being. Paintings with a looser brush handling were done in as little as one sitting and represent specific and fluid moments of being. In contrast those works that show more finished style were done over several weeks and reflect a more general and fixed state. In this way the work negotiates ideas of the subconscious and external selves.

Almalia Ulman’s critique of Selfie

Despite this sense of authentic reality the selfie is criticized for depicting an idealised version of oneself. Social media “influencers” are accused of composing and curating their identity to show a more perfect version of themselves. Amalia Ulman‘s Instagram series “Excellences & Perfections” highlights the performative nature of selfie culture. In her photo essay she satirises how femininity is often depicted on social media while simultaneously throwing into question the role of authenticity in selfie culture. By creating an alternative identity through her instagram account Ulman makes evident the staging that goes into a selfie. Her work highlights the imbalance between the time spent constructing an image and the sense of immediacy that the photographic medium suggests.

Amalia Ulman selfie excellences perfections
“Excellences & Perfections, Amalia Ulman, 2014

Like the selfies that Ulman critiques, my own work requires a certain amount of construction. To best express the central idea of each work I control my costume, pose and expression. What separates my work from Ulman and the selfie is my choice to employ a traditional time consuming method to capture my images. Working from life means that I face and stay with that staging for the longer time of creation. Spending anywhere from six hours to six weeks on a single image means that each selfie becomes a kind of authentic lived experience.

wip courtney clinton artist

Exploration of Personal Style

The proliferation of selfie images was aided by the introduction of the reverse camera on cell phones. This reverse camera replicates the experience of looking into a mirror. My own selfies are done using a mirror (instead of a photo image). I’m interested in the association between mirrors and self discovery.

By limiting myself to a single subject composition, marks and material became the central focus of the work. In this way the series becomes a way to expand my artistic style. I push myself to experiment and try new approaches with each piece. As the series progressed I found myself carrying forward certain choices. These choices have slowly culminated into the emergence of a new style. By presenting the viewer with a series of impressions about my personality, this work actively demonstrates the progression, evolution, and establishment of my style and identity as a painter.

The time spent on the creation of each image provides a space for self exploration and development. I invite the viewer to look beyond the subject of the work and consider this series as an expression of experience opposed to a statement of identity.

Understanding Sargent’s Madame X

The first time I saw John Singer Sargent’s Madame X I didn’t get it. I thought, what a boring painting to have caused a scandal. Recently, I ran into an image of the painting on a book cover. At the time, I was perusing the library for material on the use of the profile in Florentine portrait art. Staring down at Madame X with her face turned away in profile I murmured, “genius.”

(Two people turned to stare.)

Madame X Sargent
Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent 1884

A Profile Portrait of Madame Gautrau

The portrait depicting the Parisian socialite, Madame Gautreau, was originally debuted at the 1884 Paris Salon, instantly sparking scandal. The work’s controversy can be understood by examining Gautreau’s contrapposto pose which presents herself as both a Lady and an odalisque. As the art critic Susan Sidlauskas writes, “Gautreau’s tensed body challenged the entire cultural history of how a woman should pose.”

In profile, Gautreau asserts her virtue and social standing. The significance of the profile dates back to the Renaissance, first popularized in the portrayal of Florentine Noble women. Pictorially, the profile was used to keep a safe distance between a Lady and her viewer. Because she looks away the viewer assumes she is unaware of its gaze (and presumably her own beauty), therefore preserving a sense of the sitter’s modesty and humility. Over time the profile entered the lexicon of painting and came to signify a woman’s virtue and social status as a Lady.

Antonio del Pollaiolo, Portrait de jeune femme (1470-1472)
Antonio del Pollaiolo, Portrait de jeune femme (1470-1472)

Although her head is in profile, Gautreau seems to twist her torso into a frontal position offering a full view of her body. The pose suggests that while she plays the part of a Lady, Gautreau is active in the seduction of her audience.

What’s not properly understood in our contemporary age is that female nudity portrayed in classical art was considered different to actual female nakedness. It was seen as improper to portray the naked body of a real woman. By in large, nudes were of mythical subjects and it was understood that the artist was not working from a live model but an interpretation of classic Greek sculpture. These depictions were rationalized as a philosophic expression of beauty through the depiction of geometric harmony of the human form.

Actual women were still portrayed much like they were during the Renaissance  – showcasing their virtue and humility.

So Sargent’s depiction of a real woman, of high standing no less, actively presenting herself to be admired was in fact very radical for its time.

To underscore the subject’s agency she wears a pendant with the symbol of the Roman goddess of hunt Diana. In the original version, the strap pinned to the dress by the pendant of the huntress falls from her shoulder. The implication of the fallen strap was so damning that Sargent eventually repainted that portion of the work showing the strap in place on her shoulder.

Sargent Study Tate Madame X
Study of Mme Gautreau c.1884 John Singer

Sargent’s Painting Interrogates Beauty

Examining Sargent’s painting, we see it is not a portrait of a real person but a meditation on the nature of beauty. Sidlauskas writes, “when [Sargent] defended himself against his severest critics, he invoked the fidelity of his canvas to his sitter’s public persona.”

Gautreau, was an outsider to French society who infiltrated this exclusive world using her looks and a carefully curated public persona. In her time, she was considered the most beautiful and fashionable woman of Paris. She was famous and became a sort of symbol of beauty in French society.

More than challenging the Lady’s reputation, Sargent is using her image to challenge the culture’s popular understanding of beauty.

In portrait art beauty came to signify the goodness of the sitter. It was believed that beauty was an innate quality and the viewer believed that by evaluating the physical beauty of a subject they could know something about the person’s character.

In his painting Sargent portrays beauty not as an innate quality but as a kind of persona. For Sargent, beauty is an act. By presenting herself in an extreme contrapposto – a pose associated with Venus herself – Gautreau is playing the part of the beauty.

This wonderfully exaggerated twist that defines the subject’s pose shows her simultaneously twisting her body into view and diverting her gaze away from the viewer. With her head in profile the beautiful Gautreau is refusing to be known and Sargent refutes the notion that beauty is a window into the sitter’s soul – or the visual embodiment of goodness.

Sargent’s Idea of beauty

Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent, 1885

To fully understand Sargent’s idea of beauty, consider the next painting he did after the Madame X affaire. So violent was the reaction to his portrait of Gautreau that Sargent left France and sought refuge in England.

Living in the countryside with friends, Sargent took almost a year to produce his next work, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Like so much of Sargent’s art it would be easy to write this painting off as sentimental arrangement of children and flowers. But like his portrait of Gautreau, Sargent is not focused on his subject but what gives it life.

The painting shows two little girls lighting lanterns at dusk. It was painstakingly done from life and took almost a year to complete. Painting plein air, Sargent worked 10 minutes at a time to capture that last fleeting moment of light before night sets in.

In the portrait of Gautreau, Sargent has captured his subject in motion. “Madame X’s body appears to press forward, a sensation reinforced by slight projection of her dress’ bustier and by the flexed tendons in her neck. These tensed cords make us intensely aware of the supreme physical and mental effort that she must exert to hold her head in profile, while keeping her body in adamantly, even aggressively, frontal position” (Painted Skin, Sidlauskas). In reality, the twist that defines her pose could only be held for a couple minutes.

Similarly in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, the flowers, the youthful nature of the girls, the lantern’s candlelight and the diming twilight all represent a fleeting moment. It is a beautiful image but it is also profoundly melancholy because everything that makes this image beautiful cannot last.

In those early Florentine portraits, the artist aimed to present the fundamental characteristics of the sitter. Painted without space, light or movement, the sitter is presented as fixed. These “paintings embody the universal, the eternal, rather than the specific and the transitory aspect of things” (The Florentine Profile Portrait in Quattrocento, Lipman).  In this context beauty is also fixed.

In Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, the warm orange-pink glow of the candlelight that illuminates the girls’ lanterns is set against the cool purple atmosphere of crepuscule. The soul of this painting is this contrast of warm and cool light. Again the source of sublime in Sargent’s painting comes from labour not nature. The little girls are creating a sight of beauty by lighting their lanterns.

For Sargent beauty is not natural. Madame x is beautiful because of her pose. The little girls are beautiful because of the light effect they create with their lanterns. He is rejecting the classical definition of beauty as innate. Instead, he presents beauty as something artificial and therefore democratic.

Throughout the 19th century, countries like France, the United States and Russia underwent revolutions which aimed to create more equal societies. During that period the realist art movement developed with the aim of making art more representative and democratic.

In his art, Sargent shares the role of artistic creator with his subject – a truly democratic act. Realism made fine art more representative by expanding the scope of subjects “worthy” of depiction.  Sargent takes it a step further by transforming the role of the artist’s subject from passive object of admiration to creator. His work is a celebration of agency and the universal ability to create beauty.



Lipman, Jean. “The Florentine Profile Portrait in the Quattrocento.” The Art Bulletin 18, no. 1 (1936): 54-102. doi:10.2307/3045611.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X”.” American Art 15, no. 3 (2001): 9-33.

Khali Coulter, Debauched: Atypical Depictions of Female Agency and Gender Roles in Madame x.

David Alan Brown, Virtue and Beauty. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women. (2001) : pg. 11-24. National Gallery of Art Washington