Three Fragments on a Painting by John Singer Sargent

I.

The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.

It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.

The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.

You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.

II.

The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.

Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.

I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.

Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.

To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.

III.

In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.

The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.

I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)

More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.


Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!

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