While John Singer Sargent was undoubtedly one of the most significant portraitists of the fin-de-siècle glitterati, both in America and abroad, the artist’s more casual depictions of his friends and colleagues—the fellow creative minds and intelligentsia of the era—represent an arguably more meaningful segment of his oeuvre. He could experiment stylistically while representing subjects more inherently sympathetic and reminiscent of his own daily life. François Flameng and Paul Helleu exemplifies this part of Sargent’s career, depicting two of his artist friends in an interesting juxtaposition of postures with expressive brushwork and a modern use of cropping. As declared by Sargent scholar Richard Ormond in the catalogue for the recent exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the National Portrait Gallery and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, works such as François Flameng and Paul Helleu, and the underlying relationships captured in them, are not only some of the most visually captivating of Sargent’s career but also “reveal him as a deeply cultured man immersed in the arts of his time.” (Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, London, 2015, p. 7)
Born in Florence to expatriate American parents, Sargent grew up as a true cosmopolitan, learning from experience on travels across Europe with his family. Fluent in French, German and Italian as well as English, he was also an accomplished pianist. In 1874, at age eighteen, he moved to Paris to ambitiously pursue his career as an artist in the cultural capital of the world. Marc Simpson writes, “One striking element discernible in Sargent’s Parisian activities is his open approach to the fields that mattered to him: art, music, literature and the spectacle…He associates with artists, writers, dramatists and musicians of multiple generations and of disparate sensibilities. In this he matches the openness of Paris itself, a metropolitan crazy-quilt of achievement that prompted Walter Benjamin to declare it the ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century.’” (“Sargent in Paris, 1874-85: The Omnivore’s Delight,” Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 31)
In addition to taking classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, Sargent also became the star pupil in the Paris studio of Carolus-Duran, a fashionable and flamboyant society portraitist. Indeed, as a sign of his confidence in his student, Carolus-Duran offered to sit for Sargent himself. The resulting painting earned an honorable mention and significant critical praise at the Paris Salon of 1879, with a contemporary reviewer proclaiming, “It would not be possible for a pupil to pay a more dignified homage to his master.” (L. de Beaumarchez, “Le Salon de 1879: Autres Portraits,” La Presse, June 2, 1879, no. 2, as quoted in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 32) This early success with a painting of a fellow artist, drawing from the sitter’s own fame and Sargent’s close relationship with his subject, helped establish Sargent as a leading portrait artist of the time.
Painted shortly after the pivotal Carolus-Duran portrait (now in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts), François Flameng and Paul Helleu similarly personifies Sargent’s familiar relationships with other Parisian artists and their impact on his career. Fellow artists were not only readily accessible models for a portraitist experimenting and establishing his reputation, but also perfect sitters with which to employ his personal knowledge of their personalities to create a deeply impactful embodiment of character. Ormond explains, “Most of his sketches were of friends, usually of artists, to whom he occasionally presented the finished work if he considered it successful. The tradition of painting informal heads of one’s fellow artists, as a testimonial of friendship and admiration, was common in France, where the spirit of professional camaraderie was much stronger than it was, for example, in England. It is interesting to notice the variety of Sargent’s contacts in the French art world…He was becoming a known and established figure in Paris, with a wide circle of acquaintances. They ranged from the popular landscapist, Jules Cazin, and the history painter, François Flameng, to such avant-garde artists as Monet, Rodin and Mary Cassatt.” (John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, p. 20)
In the present work, François Flameng occupies the foreground of the composition, archly staring out at the viewer with his chin tilted high in a gesture of confidence. Flameng was a French artist known for his portraiture as well as history paintings, depicting subjects from the Venice Carnival to Louis XIV at Versailles. Later in his career, he became famous for his romanticized paintings of World War I and notably designed France’s first bank notes. Among his many honors, Flameng was granted France’s highest civilian honor, the Legion d’Honneur, and was elected into the National Academy of Design. Unfortunately, not much is known about Flameng’s relationship with Sargent, although they perhaps met through Auguste Rodin. In addition to gifting the present work to Flameng, Sargent’s Venetian landscape Venise par temps gris (circa 1882, Private collection) is also inscribed to this artist friend.
Sargent had a well-documented, long-lived friendship with the other sitter of the present work, Paul Helleu, who Sargent fondly nicknamed Leuleu. Ormond notes, “Sargent was drawn to several younger painters…To them, Sargent was a guiding light and an inspiration. He advised them on their work, introduced them to potential patrons and took an informed interest in the furthering of their careers.” (“Sargent and the Art,” Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 19) This sort of relationship certainly applies to Sargent’s friendship with Helleu; the two men met when Sargent was twenty-two and Helleu eighteen, and the younger man was immediately impressed with Sargent’s experienced, cultured demeanor. Sargent purchased a pastel from Helleu when he was struggling, a gesture which greatly boosted his friend’s confidence and career, and continued to introduce and promote him even several years later. A frequent companion on trips around Europe and at cafés in Paris, Helleu acted as model for Sargent several times, including for a gestural pastel in the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a striking oil painting of him sketching en plein air with his wife (An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889, Brooklyn Museum, New York).
In the present work, Sargent depicts Helleu in profile as a mysterious, dark-bearded figure lurking in the background. His quiet, thoughtful attitude and demure black clothing provide a stark contrast to Flameng’s challenging expression, verdant green jacket and quirky facial hair in the foreground. An unusual portrait placing these two men’s heads in direct juxtaposition, Elaine Kilmurray proposes that “the composition may have been inspired by sections of Frans Hals’ The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard (1616, Franz Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands), which Sargent copied when he visited Haarlem with Ralph Curtis and Francis Brooks Chadwick in 1880. These partial copies show male heads in close-up and in close relationship with each other. Sargent’s broadly and rapidly brushed [François Flameng and Paul Helleu] uses a similar dynamic.” (Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 38) Indeed, Sargent’s renowned ability to capture both the subtle nuances of human flesh and clothing as well as the personality of his sitters is beautifully evidenced here through his vigorous, fluid brushwork interrupted in places with a pop of pink for a pocket square or frazzled staccato lines for an unruly mustache. Reflecting more modern artistic devices, Sargent also creatively crops the work, cutting out Helleu’s forehead to draw attention even further to the two faces of his sitters. These little details elevate the portrait to the magnificence and eloquence on which Sargent’s reputation as a portraitist was built. “He was by instinct an aesthete and a modernist. His insistence in his own art on the material of paint, on the flux and instability of surface textures, on condensed forms and odd angles of perspective reveals him to be thoughtful and forward-thinking.” (R. Ormond, “Sargent and the Art,” Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 9)
Simpson reflects, “More than a place to study his craft…Paris was also where Sargent established the patterns of thought and action that would inform the later decades of his career, even after his move to London in 1886.” (“Sargent in Paris, 1874-85: The Omnivore’s Delight,” Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, p. 23) François Flameng and Paul Helleu articulately embodies these complex developments Sargent underwent in his early career in the French capital. The work is both a striking example of a portraitist’s unique style, which would gain unmatched popularity in the years to come, and a memento of the synergetic relationships Sargent established with fellow creative figures of the Parisian art world.