Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: as part of my 47th birthday celebration, my wife Anne and I drove from Indianapolis up to the Art Institute of Chicago and spent four hours with our eyes wide, jaws dropped, memories of past images awakened, and cameras and phones at the ready. We barely saw half the museum and will have to return someday for more.
As we walked along the many halls and galleries, Anne spotted two names in particular she’d encountered before. Among the many books she’s read by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough was one called The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, which explored the uncommon subject of the wave of 19th-century personalities with family ties to the relatively new country of America, who later spent a significant part of their lives in Europe, and who not only saw their lives changed, but who also brought those changes back home with them.
Of the two name-checked artists she recalls from the book, the Art Institute seems to love John Singer Sargent most. Either that, or the previous owners let them all go for a song. Though Sargent was born and largely raised abroad, his parents were Americans who frequently moved from country to country for a variety of reasons. Once U.S. citizenship was his, he never officially let it go. Beyond some dabbling in landscapes, Sargent was best known as a portrait artist, delivering commissioned profiles of his paying subjects in the era before families could get their photos taken at Sears or JCPenney. His career went well until Impressionism and other modern movements came along and made his work feel five-minutes-ago. But he had his dedicated fans.
Mind-blowing trivia I just learned a few minutes ago: Mrs. George Swinton here was the great-grandmother of Tilda Swinton. Yes, THAT Tilda Swinton. I Am Not Making This Up.
More fun trivia-by-association: the painter in this painting was Jane Emmet de Glehn, aunt of Robert E. Sherwood, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Best Years of Our Lives.
Also covered in McCullough’s book was Mary Cassatt, who was born in Pittsburgh but lived most of adulthood in France. She was a lone American among the original Impressionists when they became a thing, a longtime close associate of Edgar Degas, and quite the strident feminist decades before suffrage was cool. Sargent’s presence at the Institute dwarfed hers, but to me her portraits exuded more personality and candor.
More to come!