When I was a preschooler growing up in New York City, I would walk down Museum Mile’s cobblestone sidewalk with my mom and dad to visit The Met. I could roam the museum for hours: muffled chatter filling cavernous rooms warmed with artifacts and paintings hanging on whitewashed walls underneath yellow bulbs.
The summer before my senior year of high school, July 2015, I meet my dad on the steps of the Met. Usually, we visit the museum to enjoy the works of art themselves. Today, though, I’m sourcing material for my senior capstone art project. I’m interested in the people observing the artwork, and want to peer into each of their experiences.
My dad and I trail the sculpture hallway, making our way into Gallery 999, which is devoted to the special exhibit, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Bringing together 90 of John Singer Sargent’s portraits from collections across the world, the exhibit explores Sargent’s friendships with the people who posed for him and their influence on his life and art.
Young students circle Sargent’s La Carmencita portrait of a Spanish dancer. Glowing burnt yellow, La Carmencita is vivacious and statuesque. I tiptoe curiously into the students’ study. A women rests her chin on her hand as she examines The Artist Sketching. A balding man admires Sargent’s portrait of William M. Chase, who clutches his paintbrush like a sword and his palette like a shield. Aping Chase’s posture, the man tilts. I catch myself tilting too.
As we’re about to leave, a woman in a wrapped, magenta headdress sparkles in the corner of my eye. Drawing on an iPad with a foam tipped stylus, she stands with a different Sargent portrait, Albert de Belleroche.
The woman is petite, a few inches shorter than I am. Baby strands of medium-brown hair wisp out from her headdress. The sleeves of her soft, linen white shirt are rolled to three-quarter length, secured by a fabric strips and metal-rimmed buttons that play off of her watch, silver and thin. I catch her eyes—wide, light blue, and gently lined with charcoal-colored shadow. Looking at the art, she’s engaged but relaxed. Her draped shoulders echo Albert de Belleroche’s curves. She examines the portrait as a skilled translator would text. Her eyes peel through the painting layer by layer, reinterpreting it on digital canvas.
Watching the woman work, I feel woven into both her work and Sargent’s. Hesitantly, I interrupt her focus and whisper, “Do you mind if I take a picture?”
A bearded man, who seems to have accompanied the woman to the Met, approaches her. He says something quietly. I notice his wide-brimmed black fedora, iron-pressed suit, and tzitzit—traditional Hasidic Jewish clothing. He and I stand next to each other. The woman continues sketching, and we admire her patiently.
Now, back outside on the steps of the Met, I’m stuck on my camera. Quickly, I flip right through each picture. I reach the drawing woman and my stomach knots. I forgot to ask her name.
All I had grasped about this woman was that she could draw (from her unfinished but impressive iPad painting) and that she was an Orthodox Jew (from her headdress and the man she spoke with).
In the cab back from the museum, I linger on my nameless model and muse. Right away, I recognize her image’s importance to my project as an example of how art (experiencing and creating it) can connect across spaces, times, cultures, religions, genders, and technologies. Staring at it, I feel a part of her world. I wonder how her iPad, as digital media, allows her to learn about Sargent’s technique anew.
I have to draw her image—to layer my artistic gaze on hers and Sargent’s. But I don’t think of the woman beyond my project.