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Marionettes (Behind the Curtain (Marionettes); Behind the Curtain)

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By the last decades of the 19th century, John Singer Sargent had established his reputation as a preeminent portrait painter, highly sought after on both sides of the Atlantic. As his success grew, however, his interest in the genre gradually waned. The aesthetic parameters of society portraiture—often dictated by iconographic conventions and the exigencies of demanding patrons—increasingly left the artist feeling stifled and uninspired. As a result, Sargent’s travels became more important as a source of creative stimulation. Painting his own experiences allowed the artist to once again enjoy the process of envisioning, composing and executing a scene onto canvas. He would stop accepting portrait commissions altogether by 1909, choosing instead to paint what he liked while exploring the world accompanied by friends and family. Executed in 1903, Marionettes is an extraordinary example of this creative impulse, embodying the daring aesthetic style that has earned Sargent his place among the most innovative and influential American master painters.\n\nBeginning in January 1903, Sargent traveled from London for a four month-long stay in the United States. Making stops in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York, the artist arrived in Philadelphia by May, where he almost certainly painted Marionettes. The strikingly original subject matter of the canvas assists in situating the time and place of the canvas’s creation: turn-of-the century Philadelphia was home to a large population of Italian-Americans who, upon immigrating to this new country transported many of their native cultural traditions with them, Sicilian marionette theater among them. Marionettes depicts a backstage performance of this art form. The sense of spontaneity that imbues the canvas suggests it was conceived through firsthand observation, a fact additionally bolstered by the artist’s records, which list a work as painted in the city during this time. A letter written by the American painter Carroll Sargent Tyson (1877-1956) also supports this assertion, stating: "[The artist] painted a marionette theatre in the slums one day—which was very interesting—I am afraid that is all I can tell you about John Sargent in Philadelphia" (quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907, 2012, vol. VII, p. 56). How the artist came to attend this performance is not known but, given his great interest in all varieties of theater and both high and low-brow cultural pursuits from Richard Wagner to Charlie Chaplin, it is possible that he was invited to the performance by a friend and relished in the opportunity to view one firsthand. Pictures of performances were nothing new in his work, as Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver amply demonstrates (Fig. 2).\n\nAlthough he spent his professional life surrounded by the wealthiest members of society, Sargent often felt uncomfortable socializing in these powerful circles. He possessed, however, a seemingly natural affiliation for working-class people and was often able to observe and distill an extraordinarily compelling composition from moments he witnessed among them, as demonstrated in his 1912 work Granada: The Weavers (Fig.1). Sargent, writes Richard Ormond, “admired the vitality and simplicity of working people, and he painted them with a keen eye not only for picturesque detail and incident but also for those values of strength and stoicism, simplicity and decency, faith and constancy, which they represent” (Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York, 1997, p. 148). Liberated from the constraints of portrait commissions, these works display a remarkable sense of both immediacy and vitality. Upon viewing one, such as Marionettes, we are granted a brief but satisfying glimpse into the life of Sargent and his vision of the world around him.\n\nThe sense of dramatic energy that pervades the best of Sargent’s work finds an explicit rendering in Marionettes, as Sargent presents a quartet of men operating these Sicilian rod puppets within a confined and dramatically lit interior. The shimmering golden palette he utilizes suggests the stifling heat permeating the space, also indicated by the shirtless torso of one of the operators. Indeed, the air feels thick with eager anticipation: although Sargent does not depict the remainder of the audience, a fifth figure watches intently from the stage wings. His clear engagement with the dramatic performance adds to the overall sense of excitement emanating from the scene. Sicilian puppeteers preferred romantic and bloody dramas, and the rendering of two dueling knights watched by a visibly distraught woman in black suggests the specific play the artist depicts here is based on the a 15th century Italian epic poem, Orlando Furioso.\n\nIn both style and execution, Marionettes is an outstandingly dynamic composition, one dominated by the visual repetition of dramatic diagonals and angles that both engage the eye and indicate the inherent tension of the scene. The complexity of the composition not only emphasizes the artist’s superb abilities as a draughtsman but also bestows the canvas with an undeniably modern feel; elements of the composition are almost abstract, as Sargent renders the moving puppets with a wildly expressive application of thick impasto. Simultaneously, however, he masterfully captures the distinct details of the human form. The widely varied treatment of the picture’s surface produces strong and dynamic visual effects, and creates a canvas that displays a wide range of Sargent’s technical abilities.\n\nThe unique perspective Sargent adopts—sharply cropped to occlude the setting in its entirety—indicates that the focus of the work are the puppeteers, while the marionettes and the scene they perform are subsidiary in importance. The dramatic light source originating from the lower register of the canvas illuminates their forms, not only emphasizing the true subject of the canvas but also imbuing it with a greater sense of theatricality. The treatment of light and dark is similarly dramatic in Sargent's nearly contemporary picture of Perseus at Night (Fig. 5). The choice of subject and the unusual compositional design certainly indicate Sargent’s awareness of the work of many modern French painters, especially that of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). As Sargent does in Marionettes, Degas took a particular interest in depicting the backstage mechanisms and practices of performance art, especially theater and dance. Rendering subjects with unusual and dramatic viewpoints, Degas provided his viewer entry into the typically hidden world of performers rather than performances, and has subsequently become identified as an incisive observer and recorder of modern urban life (Fig. 3). As a contemporary of Degas, Sargent was certainly aware of the French artist’s work. His interest in recording the activities of common people, however, ultimately serves to situate the artist within the American, rather than the European, art historical tradition: often the most widely resonant and iconic American works of art capture Americans living, working and interacting in the small moments of their everyday lives.\n\nMarionettes particularly evokes the work of another modern American master, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), and his ability to distill a compelling narrative from the most ostensibly banal of events. Indeed, Hopper shared Sargent’s love of theater and cinema. He took a strong interest in depicting this aspect of American culture, and in the multilayered imagery—a play within a play—these settings provided (Fig. 6). At its very core, however, Marionettes is a spirited tour-de-force that not only explicitly embodies the sense of excitement and drama that only the best of the artist’s work exudes, but also testifies to his remarkably modern style and technique. Sargent did not create Marionettes with the intention of selling it during his lifetime. Instead, he retained it for his personal collection, and the work passed to his beloved sister, Emily, after his death in 1925. Comfortable with his surroundings and free to create according to his own standards and desires, Sargent likely executed this deeply personal canvas as a reminder that he was first and foremost an artist. Consequently, it stands as a visual testament to the joy he undoubtedly found in the process of painting.


Oil on canvas


John Singer Sargent


29 by 20 7/8 inches


London, New English Art Club, Summer Exhibition, May-June 1906, no. 116 (as Behind the Curtain) London, The Royal Academy of Arts, Exhibition of Works by the Late John S. Sargent, R.A., January-March 1926, no. 273, pp. 35, 41, illustrated London, Tate Gallery, Opening of Sargent Gallery, June-October 1926, p. 9 York, United Kingdom, City of York Museum and Art Gallery, Loan Exhibition of Works by the Late John Singer Sargent, R.A., March-May 1926, no. 5 Dunedin, New Zealand, 1934 (probably) Washington, D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art; Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art; Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum; Utica, New York, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, The Private World of John Singer Sargent, April 1964-January 1965, no. 83, illustrated New York, Coe Kerr Gallery, John Singer Sargent: His Own Work, May-June 1980, no. 27


Aberdeen Free Press, June 16, 1906 "New English Art Club," Birmingham Post, June 16, 1906 "New English Art Club," Daily Telegraph, June 25, 1906 "The World of Art. New English Art Club," Glasgow Herald, June 16, 1906 "New English Art Club," Globe, June 22, 1906 "Art. The New English Art Club," Guardian, June 27, 1906 "New English Art Club," Illustrated London News, June 30, 1906, vol. 128, p. 992 Laurence Housman, "The New English Art Club," Manchester Guardian, June 16, 1906 "The New English Art Club-Thirty-Sixth Exhibition," Morning Post, June 16, 1906 "The New English Art Club," London Times, June 20, 1906, p. 6d Lady Colin Campbell, "The Hopeful Side of British Art," World, June 19, 1906 William Howe Downes, John S. Sargent: His Life and Work, Boston, 1925, p. 222 (as Behind the Curtain) William Howe Downes, John S. Sargent: His Life and Work, Boston, 1926, p. 354 (as Marionettes) Evan Charteris, John Sargent, London, 1927, p. 285 Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, New York, 1955, no. K1011, p. 450 (as Behind the Curtain (Marionettes)) Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, London, 1970, pl. 113, p. 257, illustrated Carter Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1982, no. 13, p. 16, illustrated in color Warren Adelson, Donna Seldin Janis et al., Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York, 1997, pl. 152, pp. 157-8, illustrated in color p. 159 Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907, New Haven, Connecticut, 2012, vol. VII, no. 1189, pp. 16, 17, 29, 30, 49, 56, 318 n. 4, 334, illustrated in color p. 57


Emily Sargent, 1925 (the artist's sister) Violet Sargent (Mrs. Francis Ormond), 1936 (her sister) H.E. Conrad Ormond, 1955 (her son) Ormond family member, circa 1965 By descent in the family to the present owner


Property from a Descendant of the Sargent Family

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.