Strokes of sensuality

His subjects were beautiful women and powerful men, late 19th- and early 20th-century society figures, novelists, tycoons and presidents.

They were also muscular nude males, exotic dancers and Bedouin nomads.

John Singer Sargent was a portrait painter to the rich and famous. Hardly a starving artist, the American expatriate was raised among Europe's elite by well-off parents. His services were in demand. But his subject matter reflected his keen interest in all types of people and travel, resulting in a diverse body of work peppered with a sense of pleasure and sensuality.

"Clearly he was in love with paint," says Trevor Fairbrother, curator of a major exhibit of Sargent's work opening Thursday at the Seattle Art Museum. It is the West Coast's first major showing of Sargent's work.

Fairbrother, a Sargent scholar and author of a new book on the artist, says Sargent demonstrated above all else "the magic of paint." He jabbed and smeared, deploying brilliant, murky and flashy colors. Critics characterized his work as slap-dab, but Fairbrother considers his easy style an asset.

"You look at his work, and it makes you want to go home and try it."

The SAM exhibit includes 140 works including vivid oil portraits, dreamy watercolors, pencil sketches and charcoal drawings of male nudes.

The works were gathered by Fairbrother over the past 15 months from 18 museums and 13 private collections. The installation is his final one for SAM before he leaves the museum early next year to spend more time writing.

Sargent is well-known on the East Coast where his work is in the permanent collections of major museums. London's Tate Gallery organized a retrospective that traveled to Boston and Washington, D.C., last year.

Scandal molded his career

Born in Italy to American parents, Sargent (1856-1925), studied in Florence and Paris, honing a realistic style of bold, broad-brush painting that combined techniques from old masters, the Impressionists and Spanish painters.

At age 28, he created a scandal that eventually forced him to leave Paris for London where he continued a career that would make him the premier American portrait painter of his time.

The controversial painting, shown at the Paris Salon in 1884, was a sensual, full-length portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the 23-year-old Lousiana-born wife of a Parisian businessman. The painting shows Madame Gautreau dressed in a black gown that emphasized her bare shoulders, pale-powdered skin and ample breasts.

While the exhibit included pictures of female nudes, they depicted mythical creatures. Sargent's painting, which later came to be known as "Madame X," depicted a real member of Parisian society. Most controversial was a shoulder strap - a diamond-studded band that fell suggestively down her right shoulder.

Madame Gautreau was embarrassed by the public reaction. After the exhibit, Sargent repainted the position of the strap. The picture was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916.

Another painting called "Madame Gautreau," an unfinished version painted by Sargent (without the falling strap) the same year Madame X appeared in Paris, is the star of the SAM exhibit. The mystery is that no one knows if Sargent planned to eventually add the missing strap. On loan from the Tate Gallery, the painting has not previously been on view in the United States.

His career in Paris over, Sargent moved to London where he became a sought-after portrait painter. His subjects included Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt; novelists Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James, and wealthy East Coast families.

Wertheimers: a family affair

The most striking examples are what Fairbrother calls "an exhibit within an exhibit" at SAM, a display of a dozen large portraits of London art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family, painted by Sargent between 1898 and 1908.

Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, the paintings have not been shown together since they hung in the Wertheimer family home more than 70 years ago. It was the museum's offer to allow SAM to show the portraits that led Fairbrother to organize the Sargent exhibit.

The works depict the family: parents, six daughters, four boys and five dogs. In these paintings, Sargent's love of sensual detail is evident as well as his ability to humanize his subjects.

For one of the paintings, Sargent persuaded Wertheimer daughter Almina to dress up as a harem slave. She appears dressed in a flowing white costume, plucking a string instrument and wearing a playful smile rather than the look of an aristocrat bored with having to endure five to 10 sittings for a portrait.

Sargent's full-length painting of Wertheimer daughters Ena and Betty shows Ena in a white satin gown with her arm around Betty's waist. Betty, dressed in red velvet, holds an open fan. Her right arm and the fan seem to have been painted in one quick brush stroke. "Critics were always looking for signs of weakness" in Sargent's work, Fairbrother said, and some questioned if the arms were proportioned correctly.

In his book, "John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist," Fairbrother recounts how a medical student took photos of 20 different arms to prove that Sargent had not resorted to artistic trickery. The photos showed Sargent's image to be anatomically correct as well as artistically original, Fairbrother said.

Sargent was also a prolific landscape artist, figure artist and muralist. The SAM exhibit includes a collection of 30 charcoal drawings of male nudes on loan from Harvard University's Fogg Art Musuem. The undressed males, says Fairbrother, are considered to be the counterpart to his pictures of costumed females.

Also on display are watercolors and oils reflecting Sargent's passion for travel. They include paintings showing Venetian street and canal scenes, Tuscan gardens, and pictures from a camping trip in the Canadian Rockies in 1916.

If you go:

The John Singer Sargent exhibit at Seattle Art Museum opens Thursday and runs through March 18. Advance tickets on sale through Ticketmaster (206-292-ARTS) and various retail outlets. After Thursday, same-day tickets will be available at the museum's admissions desk, 100 University St., downtown Seattle.

Weekday prices: $10 adults, $7 seniors and children 7-12, free to children 6 and younger. Weekend prices: $12 adults, $10 for seniors and children 7-12, free to 6 and younger. Admission free to SAM members. On First Thursdays, when admission to the museum is free, exhibit tickets will be $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children 7-12. On Free Senior First Fridays, seniors may tour the exhibit for $5.

For information on upcoming lectures, discussions, arts programs and special events related to the exhibit, phone the museum at 206-625-8900, or see the Web at