Leigh Culver

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

History of Art

First Advisor

Elizabeth Johns


In the elegant society portraits by John Singer Sargent, body language created social identities. The fallen dress strap and obvious makeup in Madame X, for example, declared her a “professional beauty”; the costume of Charles Stewart proclaimed him a British lord. Critics often conflated appearance and character in Sargent's images, yet Sargent used theatre and masquerade in numerous works to problematize essentialist links between appearance and character that were fundamental to turn-of-the-century class, gender, and racial stereotypes. This dissertation concentrates on the art Sargent produced after Madame X, as he recovered from the scandal it provoked in 1884 and as he established his patron base in England and America. Many of Sargent's later works can be seen as a response to the issues raised by Madame X concerning the relationship between appearance and character. An analysis of theatrical elements in Sargent's paintings elucidates the function of these images in variously maintaining and challenging notions of social identity.

Chapter One discusses the critical reception of Sargent's art in the context of a turn-of-the-century culture engaged in classification and performance activities. These activities are interpreted as strategic responses to a pervasive anxiety about the instability of class, gender, and racial identities resulting from modern conditions. This chapter looks specifically at the celebration of Sargent as a skilled delineator of “racial” types, the varied analyses of his own “national” identity, the debate over his artistic merit, and the concern about his “artifice.”

Chapters Two through Four consider how Sargent responded to the discourses about his art through his portrayals of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (Chapter Two), Jewish and aristocratic patrons (Chapter Three), and costumed family members and friends (Chapter Four). The visual structures of the paintings, in relation to evidence about the social culture in which Sargent painted and exhibited, suggest his artistic intentions even if Sargent himself rarely spoke of them. Through his work, Sargent called attention to the dialectic between reality and artifice and, consequently, the constructed nature of art and identity.

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