A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siècle Art

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Overview

A Touch of Blossom considers John Singer Sargent in the context of nineteenth-century botany, gynecology, literature, and visual culture and argues that the artist mobilized ideas of cross-fertilization and the hermaphroditic sexuality of flowers in his work to “naturalize” sexual inversion. In conceiving of his painting as an act of hand-pollination, Sargent was elaborating both a period poetics of homosexuality and a new sense of subjectivity, anticipating certain aspects of artistic modernism.

Assembling evidence from diverse realms—visual culture (cartoons, greeting cards, costume design), medicine and botany (treatises and their illustrations), literature, letters, lexicography, and the visual arts—this book situates the metaphors that structure Sargent’s paintings in a broad cultural context. It offers in-depth readings of particular paintings and analyzes related projects undertaken by Sargent’s friends in the field of painting and in other disciplines, such as gynecology and literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“If you want to understand the art of John Singer Sargent, read this book. If you want to understand something crucial about European and American culture at the turn of the twentieth century, read this book. With intelligence and wit, Syme moves us far beyond Sargent’s reputation as a glib socialite incapable of modernism. Instead, Syme shows, Sargent was painting an open sexual secret. Using a term from the period, Syme reveals the ‘invert’ implications, and associations, of one artwork after another. She introduces us to the poetics of the plant, the insect, and the bat. Nor is she afraid to write about the most polymorphously perverse sorts of sex, frankly and vividly. Aside from being a brilliant interpretation of Sargent’s work, Syme’s book belongs to the newest and most productive kind of art history: erudite and sensitive, rich in references, comparisons, and analyses of form. A Touch of Blossom brings us into fresh, immediate contact with the beauty of Sargent’s paintings, as if we were seeing them ourselves for the first time.”
—Anne Higonnet, Barnard College

“Imaginative, observant, and marvelously playful, Syme's discovery of a vegetal poetics sheds a powerful light on the myths and motifs of modern art. Hers is a vital new voice in art history.”
—Joseph Koerner, Harvard University

A Touch of Blossom’s contention that Sargent openly pursued an ‘invert’ agenda in his portraits may seem radical to some readers. However, any skepticism, if such exists, soon evaporates in the face of Alison Syme’s cogent, finely crafted argument. Written with wit and grace, and filled with vivid stylistic analyses and ingenious verbal and visual puns, this book is as engaging as the brilliant portraits it examines. Its opulent illustrations and sophisticated design complement Penn State Press’s admirable commitment to breaking down the academic barriers between art and science. The result is a brave and original cultural portrait that rivals Sargent’s own in subtlety, depth, and beauty.”
—Laurinda Dixon, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271036229
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 9/12/2010
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 340
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Alison Syme is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Toronto.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments

List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Birds and the Bees

1 La Vie en Rose

2 Lascivious Digitation, or The Importance of Manual Stimulation to the Invert Artist

3 Dr. Octogynecologist

4 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ladybird

5 The Sting

Conclusion: Leaf Taking

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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