Just before the turn of the Twentieth Century there was one name in American portraiture. It was John Singer Sargent. When Theodore Roosevelt hated his presidential portrait, he persuaded the artist to paint a new one. Sargent was still beloved by his patrons when he decided to stop painting portraits, and focus on what he wanted to create.
“Nonchaloir (Repose)” is a wonderful example of what Sargent could do when he was not trying to please other people. Let’s look at Sargent’s history as a painter, the model he adored most, and at a painting that’s title means both nonchalant, and resting.
Everyone, who was Anyone wanted a Sargent
Sargent’s parents were American expatriates. The artist was born in Italy, but grew up traveling throughout Europe. When he began painting he continued his nomadic lifestyle. In Spain he would copy the works Diego Velasquez. At Giverny he would study with Claude Monet. He was facile at learning to paint in different styles, and mediums. His personal ethos aligned best with the realists, as he tried to honestly depict the personality and surroundings of
anyone who sat for him. Sargent preferred to work alone, and did not hire assistants. He would paint portraits wherever he travelled. He was adept at capturing the strength behind a business titan, or the innocence of a child. His patrons loved him. Unfortunately, critics, and other artists viewed his portraits as trite, and old-fashioned. By 1906, Sargent had grown indifferent to pandering to an elite clientele, and all but gave up portraiture.
Who was Rose Marie Ormond?
The short answer… she was John Singer Sargent’s niece, or as he once called her, “The most charming girl that ever lived.” Sargent painted her several times prior to this work. Her family even traveled with Sargent from time to time as she was growing up. In 1911, when she posed for “Nonchaloir (Repose),” she was eighteen. This is one of the last times Sargent would use her as a model. Ormond grew into a woman of strength, and sadness. In 1913, she married
Robert André-Michel. The next year war broke out across Europe, and her new husband enlisted. He was killed in an early battle of WWI. After his death, Ormond lived in Paris with his parents. She worked at a hospital dedicated to the rehabilitation of soldiers who had been blinded by mustard gas. Tragically, Ormond died on Good Friday 1918, when a bomb hit Saint Gervais et Saint-Protais, a Paris church where she was attending a service. Her wartime work probably effected Sargent. In 1919, Sargent created a mural for The Imperial War Museums. In it he painted a line of soldiers blinded by Mustard Gas making their way across a battlefield.
She lies languidly on the sofa. Her eyes open, hair splayed, fingers intertwined. She is unapologetic in the space she inhabits. Her dress fans over the entire sofa. The room is both muted, and bright, maybe with the glow of late afternoon. The painter achieves tension through the use of color. While on the surface his choices look subtle, the painting is literally bathed in yellow. This also shows how a warm color like red, creates tension as it responds to a
cool color like blue. Sargent then painted colors on top of each other to create rich details. He builds additional tension through his use of light and dark space.
John Singer Sargent doesn’t always get the respect he deserves. During his life, he was often dismissed as just a portrait painter. Thankfully, his work has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. You can find Sargent’s work at most American museums, and around the globe. He was prolific not just in oil, but with watercolors. His art deserves a closer look, wherever you may find it.