Jules Etienne Pasdeloup (1819–1887) conducted an orchestra in Paris for nearly three decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was a champion of controversial modern composers. He rehearsed his orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver, an ornate Second Empire indoor amphitheater. Sargent, an ardent amateur musician, frequently attended Pasdeloup’s concerts and depicted them several times. This picture is his most abstract treatment of the subject and represents one of his boldest experimentations with Impressionism. The picture’s monochrome palette, painterly execution, and energetic composition suggest both the dance of musical notes across a page and the vital sound of the music itself. This canvas was first owned by another expatriate American painter, Henry Bacon [13.1692], who reproduced it in his 1883 book Parisian Art and Artists; it may have been painted for him.
In addition to this remarkable small painting, executed in Paris early in Sargent’s career, a larger version exists at the Art Institute of Chicago (on loan from a private collection). Both works represent Pasdeloup’s“Concerts Populaires,” held on Sunday afternoons in Paris from November to May between 1861 and 1887. The indoor amphitheater in which they took place stands in proximity to the place de la République in Paris’s eleventh arrondissement and still exists. Originally known as the Cirque Napoléon, the structure was built in 1852 under the charge of Jacques-Ignace Hittorff (1792–1867), who also directed the creation of the Gare du Nord and the decoration of the place de la Concorde. Although used primarily for the circus, then and now, the building also hosted other indoor entertainments. Pasdeloups’s program was an adventurous one, and many artists besides Sargent were attracted to his concerts, including Henri Fantin-Latour, Paul Sérusier, and Frédéric Bazille, as well as the Americans Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Thomas Eakins. Paris’s music scene was vibrant, with both expensive operas and inexpensive cabarets attracting patrons. Musical events were particularly popular with expatriate Americans in the city, perhaps in part due to the irrelevance of the language barrier for the enjoyment of music; Pasdeloup’s inexpensive concerts facilitated their enjoyment of the Parisian cultural scene. Sargent himself was a gifted musician, perhaps even a brilliant one, with many musician friends; as Stanley Olson wrote, “music was John’s consuming interest, after painting. It was his chief pleasure and it became the nucleus of his social life.” Sargent shared with Pasdeloup a special enthusiasm for Richard Wagner, Gabriel Fauré, and other progressive and sometimes controversial modern composers; the paintings he made of Pasdeloup’s orchestra confirm Sargent’s awareness of current trends in music, as do numerous textual sources.
The American painter and critic William A. Coffin recalled going to the Pasdeloup concerts with Sargent: “Sargent, who dearly loved the music, was struck by the odd picturesqueness of the orchestra . . . seen in the middle of the amphitheater, the musician’s figures foreshortened from the high point of view on the rising benches, the necks of the bass-viols sticking up above their heads, the white sheets of music illuminated by little lamps on the racks . . . While he listened he looked, and . . . one day he took a canvas and painted his impression. He made an effective picture of it, broad, and full of color.” This account must refer to the Chicago picture, which includes three colorfully dressed clowns seated in a balcony in the foreground of the composition. Earlier, the painter had made several quick pencil sketches [28.50] of the orchestra during a concert; certain details of the sketches, including the timpanist and the conductor, were repeated in the two paintings.
In the Boston picture, the painter reduced his palette to pure monochrome and condensed the composition by eliminating the foreground figures as well as two rows of the arena in the background; these unusual qualities render the painting unique in Sargent’s oeuvre, particularly when combined with his striking technique in the painting. Quickly executing thin washes of gray and black over a warm gray ground, rapidly adding touches of white for the sheets of music and the highlights on certain instruments, Sargent captured the ragged energy and motion—almost a sound—of the orchestra in an Impressionist experiment he would rarely repeat. Despite his limited use of such techniques, Sargent became interested in the work of a variety of avant-garde artists, perhaps facilitated by his teacher, Carolus-Duran, early in his career. By this time Sargent would have had many chances to see the work of Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and other painters depicting the various cultural attraction provided by Paris’s sophisticated urban society. Degas was well known for his many works depicting audiences, musicians, and performers. His grisaille The Dance Class (Répétition d’un ballet sur la scène, 1874, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) provides a precedent for the young American’s experiment. Sargent made a drawing after Degas’s 1876 pastel L’Etoile (Sketch after Degas’s “L’Etoile,” about 1877, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), which he must have seen at the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877, confirming his interest in Degas’s work. Similar, if less pronounced, uses of avant-garde formal techniques (compressed perspective, oblique lighting, and others) continue in Sargent’s informal work and testify to his genuine interest in the painting of modern life practiced by his Impressionist contemporaries.
Neither the Boston painting nor the larger Chicago version attracted much critical attention until recent years, and their dates and the order in which they were executed have puzzled scholars. Coffin arrived in Paris in 1877, and thus Stanley Olson’s dating of the Chicago version to November 1878, following Sargent’s trip to Naples and Capri, seems plausible. Though Sargent’s two early biographers, William Howe Downes (1925) and Evan Charteris (1927), both date the Boston picture to 1876, it seems much more likely—given its more confident handling and greater compositional sophistication—that it followed the Chicago picture and thus dates from 1879–80.
1. Elaine Brody, Paris: The Musical Kaleidoscope, 1870–1925 (New York: G. Braziller, 1987), 118, 131, 134.
2. Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portraits (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 71.
3. Quoted in Olson, John Singer Sargent, 54, and “Sargent and His Painting,” Century Magazine, June 1896.
4. See Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1874–1882 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 189–93.
This text was adapted and expanded by Carolyn J. Trench from Theodore E. Stebbins Jr.’s entry in John Singer Sargent, ed. ElaineKilmurray and Richard Ormond, exh. cat. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver
- about 1879–80
- John Singer Sargent, American, 1856–1925
- 57.15 x 46.04 cm (22 1/2 x 18 1/8 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery (John Singer Sargent, 1856–1925) - 232