The beauty and gentle eroticism of John Singer Sargent's paintings and drawings of nude males are the raison d'être of this otherwise somewhat slight book. Most are exquisitely languid, with such tender touches as a pink tinge on the buttocks of a boy lying prone on a beach in Capri, or two intimate "tommies"--privates in the World War I British Army--napping on a riverbank after a swim, heads together. Then there are a few nude wrestling matches, à la Eadweard Muybridge and D.H. Lawrence. And, as the author somewhat frantically insists, there are works that possess an "uplifting and spiritual aspect."
The wonder is that Sargent's sisters preserved these works--which the artist had kept private--after his death. They are thrilling, as much for Sargent's astonishing facility with a brushload of color as for the sensuous subjects. The essay may be skipped by readers who wince when informed that any subject of a society portrait by Sargent was "transformed into a fashionable denizen of the Edwardian age, whomever he was." Author John Esten sniffs prissily at the suggestion that Sargent may have harbored homoerotic feelings, while the works themselves often unabashedly focus on the genitalia of the models, and the ones that don't are filled with the kind of closeness and warmth of observation that makes the model's soft skin seem almost palpable. Linger over the book's 18 color plates, which are a lasting, luscious pleasure; the scores of black-and-white drawings are similarly inspired. --Peggy Moorman