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Excerpts from Ray Carney's American Vision:
John Singer Sargent's Madame X and
Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel

In Sargent, posing becomes a means of self-composition. Madame X, his portrait of Madame Gautreau, tells us with every aspect of her theatricality–the turn of her head, the studied placement of her right hand on the "prop" of the table next to her, the slight angling of her upper body, the daring décolletage of her stunning "costume"–that she is creating a deliberately calculated effect. One thinks of the famous colloquy between Isabel Archer and Madame Merle, in chapter 19 of The Portrait of a Lady, about the importance (or unimportance) of costume and props to the expression of the self:

"When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self–for other people–is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps–these things are all expressive."

This was very metaphysical; not more so, however than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of human personality. "I don't agree with you. I think it is just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!"

"You dress very well," Madame Merle lightly interposed.

"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."

"Should you prefer to go without them?" Madame Merle enquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.

There is no question but that Madame Gautreau would side with Madame Merle in this dispute, and probably be just as dismissive of Isabel's commitment to the existence of a naked self outside of social definitions and beyond forms of expression. To complete the artistic parallel, if Madame Merle is a figure out of Sargent, Isabel is a figure out of Eakins, a figure who reminds us how separate she is from any costume she happens to wear at the moment and how costumes do not, cannot contain or express her. Yet Sargent's Madame Gautreau and James's Madame Merle, in an alternative way, also express a notion of the transcendental self. Insofar as they stage their effects and self-expressions and are not merely identical with them or unselfconsciously defined by them, we are aware of a self beyond the costume, behind the gesture, underneath the role, a self not completely represented by the part it plays. This is a crucial (and commonly misunderstood) point, and it helps one to see why theatrical impulses and transcendental aspirations are not opposed concepts (and why Madame Merle and Isabel Archer are therefore not entirely opposed characters, as one might naively conclude). They are rather alternative responses on the part of the self to the same condition of having too much imagination for expression in ordinary, received social roles and functions. While Isabel Archer quests after a disencumbered state of freedom, Madame Merle (like Eugenia of The Europeans and many of James's other heroines) transforms herself into a flamboyant actress of her own life. It is in this sense that Sargent and Eakins, though apparently so entirely opposed in their art, actually reflect a common cultural background and a shared set of assumptions about self-expression. As we shall see in the early films, Barbara Stanwyck will be an actress who will stimulate Capra to entertain both conceptions of the self. In some scenes and films she will play a visionary questing for a release from worldly categories and definitions similar to Isabel Archer. In others she will play a consummate actress of her own life in a dazzling display of a mastery of alternative tones, styles, and costumes. The two kinds of characters are really only the same character imagined in two different forms of self-expression.

If we did not already know this, one of Sargent's great double portraits would have helped us to see it. I have in mind Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel. In the figures of the portrait Sargent embodies the two alternatives for the self I am describing. The daughter is Isabel Archer–all vague, undeveloped, uncostumed dreaming; the mother is Madame Merle–poised, proper, posed, social presence of mind. We can read the two tightly intertwined and enjambed figures (and the two heads in particular) in several different ways: as the private self and the public manner; as figures of the past and the future; of innocent possibility and experienced realization; but however we gloss them, it is clear that in the unfocused, indirect gaze into the distance of the daughter Sargent is giving us a view of a state of reverie or imagination that necessarily will be, he suggests, sooner or later expressed socially in the fixed, direct look into our eyes of the mother. The figures are really one figure viewed twice, he tells us.

Of course, the painting also raises the implicit question of whether there is more of a loss or of a gain in this process of the mother's socialization of the daughter's incoherent reverie or vision but then, James's novels and Capra's films repeatedly ask the same question. In all three artists' work, a character's alluring theatricality (in the case of the first Sargent painting) or social polish and poise (in the case of the second) represent the working off of unplaceable imaginative energies in stylistic flair. Yet, at the same time, they are also evidence of the anxiety, fragility, and vulnerability of the achieved self. Sargent's sitters are never relaxed or at ease. There is a tension, a willfulness to their creations of themselves which Sargent brings out in his figures that entirely distinguishes his portraits from those one finds in the English country-house portrait tradition (with which his work is often unfortunately lumped). In that tradition, stable identities can be taken for granted, can be reclined into amid the silks, the setters, and the grand, green pastoral settings. That lack of ease in James's, Sargent's, and Capra's work results in the sense of anxiety and vulnerability that one feels in their most ambitious figures, even as it is also the source of their creativity and the stimulus to the dangerously daring performances these figures launch themselves on, which are absent from the English tradition.

In a similar vein, Capra's films explore the dangers and difficulties as well as the stimulations and incentives available to these precariously poised American selves. They ask the questions that are central to understanding our culture. How is the bootstrap project of creating a self and a place for the self in the world to be accomplished? Do social forms of performance express our imaginative possibilities or frustrate them? What is the destiny of the weak and vulnerable self that breaks free from institutional supports and imagines itself an exception to all preordained social forms? Can it ever find expression for its imagination in the real world of space and time, within the repressive structures of social organization and language, or is it doomed to perpetual imaginative homelessness? James, Sargent, Homer, Hopper, and Capra are all asking related questions....

© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.