John Singer Sargent is known as one of the preeminent portrait and figurative painters of the early 20th century. But it’s a portrait, painted by Sargent in the late 1800s, which many contemporary appreciators of art know best. Portrait of Madame X, a full length painting of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Victorian and Edwardian era French socialite, stands as an exemplar of Sargent’s work.
Writing to a friend about his desire to paint Gautreau, Sargent said, “I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty.”
Now painter Karin Jurick is paying homage to the beauty she sees in Sargent’s work with a new series of paintings at Robert Lange Studios. It’s not simply her own admiration for the famous portrait maker she’s putting on the canvas: She’s showing appreciation for his work through paintings of people appreciating Sargent.
“I’ve painted dozens [of other artists’ works] in the past few years that included a Sargent,” Jurick recalls, “and it’s always my personal favorite to reproduce. Sargent’s excellence in the figure is what I admire the most. And there are many fans of Sargent out there and I wanted to pay my respects to his works.”
Jurick started on this path of creating these paintings — of people looking at paintings — as a teenager living in Chicago. She would visit the Chicago Art Institute and sketch the visitors for hours. As she advanced in her art career she began to harken back to those moments around 2004 when painting became her main method.
“I realized what a great learning tool it was to reproduce different artists’ works and started putting more emphasis on that, equal to the figure in the painting,” Jurick says.
In this process of learning through reflecting on the greats, Jurick came to realize that capturing Sargent was one of the most challenging and rewarding projects.
“Not only was Sargent a master of the figure and portraiture, his skill of painting fabrics and folds is captivating,” Jurick says. “His paintings have what I call ‘sweet spots,’ where a touch of red on the tip of the fingers, or tiny white highlights make a strand of pearls gleam.”
Sargent said that Gautreau was “the unpaintable beauty,” due, not to lack of confidence in his own ability, but to the subject’s boredom with the process of portraiture. Sargent made many sketches of Gautreau and tried various poses, but it was hard to keep the mother of a toddler, head of a household, and society woman still for long.
Just as Sargent had trouble getting Madame X on the canvas, Jurick, too has developed techniques to overcome the difficulties of recreating Sargent’s subjects. One of the most arduous aspects of recreating the portrait painter’s works is the life he put into the visage of his portraits.
“I spend an enormous amount of time getting his faces right,” Jurick says. “Everything else surrounds that with more ease. Perhaps he felt the same way.”
Sargent is only one aspect of Jurick’s paintings, though. Her work wouldn’t be complete if it weren’t for the museum-goers who populate her canvas. In her ode to Sargent’s Theodore Roosevelt portrait what appears to be an older gentleman stands toe to toe with the giant of American presidents. In Jurick’s own Madame X, two women take in the exemplary piece, one leaning in as if to better figure out the intangibles of what she’s seeing. What Jurick wants to capture in her figures is simple.
“I want to paint ordinary people looking at extraordinary works of art,” she says.
While Sargent’s characters may face whoever views Jurick’s tributes, the cast she paints typically faces away from those appreciating her art, which lends a mysterious quality to the paintings — a quality that may be a reflection of what those who take in Sargent appear to feel.
“I think people stop and stare at a Sargent far more than they do other works of art,” she says. “Women especially. It makes me happy when someone takes the time to let their eyes travel around the whole painting, soak it in.”
While an artist has all the reason to give their own work the highest credence, Kurick is fully able to admit that doing right by a well known master was the toughest aspect of this series — maybe the toughest of all her odes to painters of the past.
“[Sargent’s painting] took much longer to complete each piece than it normally takes,” she says. “The frames are elaborate, the paintings are complex, the colors need to be right. My figures come rather easily compared to reproducing a Sargent.”