Imagined Inheritance: Mark Beard as Bruce Sargeant

Carrie Haddad Gallery
Jun 9, 2017 8:24PM

“My mother also had an uncle who was an artist – Bruce Sargeant," testifies New York-based painter Mark Beard in Bruce Sargeant and His Circle: Figure and Form. The biography that follows is part inspirational, part tragic – and entirely fictional.

There's a reason that the paintings signed "Bruce Sargeant" are labeled "date unknown": the talented hand behind these paintings actually belongs to Mark Beard (b. 1956), a New York-based artist whose deceivingly contemporary works are characterized by an aura of antiquity. The fictional Bruce Sargeant, whom Beard identifies as his great-uncle, is one of the many names that Beard uses when he signs his work – and it is to Sargeant that Beard has dedicated the bulk of his career, building an immense body of work that is dignified and provocative in equal measure.

Although fictional, Mark Beard's imagined subject of a gay painter in the early 20th Century explores a narrative of intolerance that really puts Sargeant's work in new perspective. The following biography is an excerpt from the book written by the artist, which further examines the trials and triumphs of the man that Mark Beard has spent so many years not just creating, but becoming.

From Bruce Sargeant & His Circle: Figure and Form

by Mark Beard

My mother also had an uncle who was an artist – Bruce Sargeant. He lived with my grandmother and her husband in 1918, on one of his many returns to his birthplace, Rotherham, a small town outside of Sheffield, England. Through deaths and inheritance, hundreds of his canvases descended on us. This included a collection of work by his contemporaries, colleagues, and teachers.

Falconer, 60 x 36 inches, oil on canvas in distressed black painted wood frame

Lion, 48 x 24, oil on canvas in white painted wood frame

Bruce Sargeant was a member of the National Academy of Design – its former chief curator, David Dearinger, has referred to him as “the English Eakins.” He was born in 1898 to an American father and English mother. Although in his youth he traveled to New York and Paris, he spent the majority of his life in Rotherham. Not encouraged by his family to be an artist, he nevertheless entered the prestigious London art school, the Slade, in 1920, taking evening classes with the Ècole des Beaux-Arts-educated Hippolyte Alexandre Michallon.

Single Man with Suspenders, 15 x 11.75 inches, oil on canvas in thin black painted wood stripping

Sargeant matriculated from the Slade in 1921 ... He returned home to Sheffield and resumed his painting. He also began an affair with a local boy. Within a few years, however, the young man's outraged father learned of their relationship and revealed it to Sargeant's father, who banished Bruce to Canada in an attempt to end the scandal. Bruce maintained a correspondence with his paramour, and longed to be home. Upon his father's death in 1926, Sargeant returned to Sheffield. Though he briefly resumed his local affair, differences in class and education became too significant to surpass. He focused his energies on building a studio, The Firs, and painting portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and more importantly, athletes.

Two Men on Safari, 36 x 24 inches, oil on canvas in black painted wood frame

Over the next decade, the Sargeant family business was sold, and Bruce was reduced to a fixed allowance. Modest success in art shows and gallery exhibitions provided him means and reason to travel; he returned to Paris, where he became involved in a tragic affair with a married man, and to New York, to reacquaint himself with the work of the Ashcan painters who so inspired him early in his artistic endeavors. But it was a fateful trip to Germany in 1936 and a relationship with Nazi youth Hans Kramer that resulted in some of his most powerful work. Sargeant was named of the official painters of Great Britain for the 1936 Olympic Games. He not only painted the athletes, but several views of Berlin, including Interior of Hotel Room. This prolific period also resulted in Sargeant's book of etching and poetry, privately published in 1938.

Two Seated Men, 16.75 x 20.75 inches, oil on canvas framed in thin black painted wood stripping

Mountain Hiking, 26 x 11 inches, oil on canvas in thin black painted wood stripping

In his short but productive life, Sargeant clung to his faith in the figure, and exalted the body in the tradition of Michallon, though it is only now, decades after his death, that he is receiving the attention he deserves. His paintings of the Berlin Olympics indicate a mastery that was prescient – were it not for his tragic death in a wrestling accident in 1938, there would be far more of his sensuous works to study and enjoy. As it is, there are still discoveries being made of Sargeant's work in private collections.

Mark in his studio

Mark Beard exhibits his painting and sculpture both nationally and abroad. His work from all personas can be found in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum, as well as many other private collections. Beard currently divides his time between New York City and Paris, France.

Top image: Equestrians with Black Horse, 49 x 37 inches, oil on canvas in thin black wood stripping

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Carrie Haddad Gallery