Art: Instead of Paughtraits

"Portrait painting is a pimp's profession," John Singer Sargent once proclaimed. "Mugs" was what he called his 500-odd sitters, mostly proper Bostonians, British nobles and French socialites, and he sometimes contemptuously held their attention by coloring his nose red or pretending to eat his cigar. "No more paughtraits" he wrote in relief to a friend after he began shunning them in 1910, at the height of his renown.

Scornful as he was of this work, Sargent's portraits almost never flattered, almost always illuminated personality to the surprised satisfaction of the sitter—although in the...

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