Review | New John Singer Sargent show unites Madame X and Dr. Pozzi. Sparks fly.

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BOSTON — John Singer Sargent’s liquid, skittering brushstrokes are one of the glories of world art. “Fashioned by Sargent,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is this year’s best chance to applaud them.

The show focuses on Sargent’s commissioned portraits. This is the aspect of his production that made his reputation but is sometimes denigrated as superficial and toadying. Sargent himself spoke scornfully, and with evident exhaustion, of his “paughtraits.” He was determined to quit his dependence on them or — with the same result — to wean the wealthy off their reliance on him. (A portrait by Sargent was considered a family heirloom.) He never entirely succeeded.

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But “Fashioned by Sargent,” as the title suggests, is not just about Sargent’s ability to fix a wealthy sitter’s likeness. The show’s true subjects are the clothes his subjects wore, the style they projected and the painterly prowess that went into depicting both.

The prowess is staggering. In Sargent’s hands, a black opera cloak worn by Aline de Rothschild can come to resemble an undulating coalpit as if painted by Velázquez. A long string of pearls seems to slide down the voluminous pale pink dress of Adele Levis like a glistening waterfall seen from a hot-air balloon. The crimson dressing gown of the handsome Dr. Pozzi set against a red velvet wall floods the eye with the color intensity of a Matisse decoration. The frills at the front of Maria Robbins’s black walking dress become like a flowering vine painted with the brio of a Manet still life. And the pink-tipped fingers of Gretchen Osgood and her daughter Rachel sink into satin reflecting opalescent light in a welter of arbitrary-seeming brushstrokes that resolve, at a foot’s remove, into an utterly convincing reality.

But this show is not just about a fabulously gifted painter making hay with the shapes and colors of silk dresses, hunting attire, hats and cravats. It plunges us into the entrails of commissioned portraiture. You get to watch a surgeon of high society at work on potentially messy operations. Sargent could handle the business side (the commission), the social side (getting on with the sitter), the PR side (right dress, right pose, right expression) and the picture-making side, and sew it all up with invisible stitches.

The exhibit was organized by the MFA’s Erica Hirshler and will travel to Tate Britain in London. It displays scattered examples of the actual gowns, shawls, coats, hats and fans worn by Sargent’s subjects. There is deep research behind these selections, and the gowns are wonderful, but they’re judiciously spaced out and don’t get in the way of the paintings.

Auguste Rodin described Sargent as the Van Dyck of his time. The compliment points to the fact that he was also the end of a line. Like the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, he was a virtuoso who — through his mastery of a tradition past its zenith — makes you look back at that tradition rather than forward. Just as Marsalis is perhaps the best-known 21st-century torch bearer for the glories of 20th-century jazz, Sargent embodied a portraiture tradition that had peaked in the 17th century, in the hands of Rubens, Velázquez and Frans Hals, and was modernized by the likes of Delacroix and Manet.

It was a long line, in other words. It was killed off first by photography and then, more emphatically, by World War I. After that, Sargent’s portraits were fated to be looked back on as poignant emissaries from a privileged world haughtily oblivious not just to its own impending doom but to an entire generation’s.

But Sargent died in 1925 and here we are, a century later. The modernism that flowered in his wake — so much of it an attempt to start from scratch, to build something better from the wreckage — has itself withered on the vine. It takes more imagination for people today to understand what Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich were up to than to grasp the status-pumping impulse behind Sargent’s portraits, which chime naturally with the contemporary portraiture of Elizabeth Peyton, Jordan Casteel and Amy Sherald and share much with the swagger of hip-hop, the self-preening of Instagram and the jet-setting, wealth-parading antics of today’s oligarchs and tech bros.

To the extent that Sargent’s portraits were exercises in flattery, I can’t say I’m all that interested in them. Nor do I particularly care — although it is the animating question behind the show — to parse the extent to which Sargent’s efforts were under his control or, instead, insisted upon by his powerful sitters. In my mind, there was never any doubt that, in the setting of his studio, Sargent called the shots. What amazes, again and again, is his uncanny ability not only to fulfill the commission but to take the level of execution up about five notches from what could reasonably be expected.

Image creation is rarely successful when it is concerned only with the brute projection of power. It starts to force our interest only when it communicates more transient, fragile qualities, like nonchalance, boredom, even mischievous revolt. Put your antennae up and you’ll detect all these qualities in Sargent’s portraits. Again and again, he found ways to elevate the art of social toadying into something surprising, subtle and tender.

And then there is what I can only describe as the wild beauty in Sargent’s virtuosity. The question of just how good he was can be settled only in the presence of his paintings, where, gradually, ineluctably, doubt disintegrates. To see portraiture done this way — working with a loaded brush here, a dry, scudding touch there; with this particular pink placed in relation to that green and with this wristy, rhythmic ease — is akin to watching a great conductor before an orchestra in her thrall. It doesn’t really matter if it’s your favorite music. You’re there, in the room, and the sound is incredible.

There are paintings here that leave you gasping for air. Was there ever a sultrier portrait, for instance, than Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw,” his 1892 portrait of Gertrude Agnew? This is the work that established Sargent as England’s premier portraitist. Someone said all of London was at his feet after he painted it, but that’s surely only because he left everyone groveling at Lady Agnew’s feet. (Pictures are pictures and life is life, so it’s easy to put aside the knowledge that the sitter who meets our gaze so sexily was recovering at the time from a severe bout of influenza.)

Sargent was a tonal painter, not an Impressionist. His brushwork was guided not by the workings of discreet blotches of color under relatively even light conditions but by gradations of light and dark. Study the folds in Lady Agnew’s violet sash where it cascades down over her upper thigh, or the shadow between her forearm and the arm of the chair, and you can see how scintillating, in its economy and concision, tonal painting can be.

But he was also a great colorist. Among the show’s most fabulous loans are “Dr. Pozzi at Home,” which shows the handsome gynecologist in a glorious red dressing gown. Sargent understood, too, that white and black are also colors, full of complexity. The richness of the blacks, for instance, in the slim-fitting dress worn by “Madame X,” his infamous painting of Amélie Gautreau, is as crucial to the painting as her audaciously sculptural pose. Gautreau looks queenly today, but the painting scandalized Parisians, who saw it as vulgar and attention-grabbing — especially the loose shoulder strap, which Sargent duly repainted in a more decorous position.

I love, too, Sargent’s small, hastily painted head portrait of his childhood friend, the writer Vernon Lee (whose real name was Violet Page). Lee liked to dress in masculine clothing. The portrait, which she said he painted in an hour, captures her fleet intelligence. Sargent applied dry white paint with two vertical brushstrokes (one of them streaming from a thin band of refracted turquoise) to capture the light reflecting off one lens of her glasses and the slight asymmetry of her open mouth. Such subtly unsettling details give our engagement with the painting, no matter how prolonged, the quality of a glance.

The highlights of the show’s final room are Sargent’s intimate, plein-air pictures of young men and women reclining by riverbanks and in alpine meadows. These works came late in his career and were the equivalent of slipping into something more comfortable. The best of the bunch are “The Chess Game,” “Group with Parasols (A Siesta)” and “Two Girls in White Dresses,” which all show supine bodies and crumpled clothes blending into landscape. In all three, Sargent’s brush seems to squirm between bodies, clothes, rocks and grass until it becomes impossible to tell in the mottled light who is what and what is who.

I could stare at these paintings for hours, reveling in their textures and colors. Their atmosphere is redolent of the flickering denouement of an all-night party in your 20s, when everyone is pretending to be asleep on the couch, and all you can think about is the breathing, proximate, surely-not-accidental presence of the body beside you and the warm, yielding skin on the other side of the cloth.

Fashioned by Sargent is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Jan. 15. mfa.org.

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