The Great Painter Who Has Given to Portraiture the Principle of Immediacy — The Touch of the Orient in His Artistic Leanings — An Analysis of His Work
She stands upon a glittering crescent, with a cobra coiled at her feet. About her floats a blue, diaphanous film [pic]. Her robe is richly embroidered with gold, her brow studded with jewels. On either side sway the devotees of a wanton, voluptuous dance [pic], while beneath her writhe the victims of her lusts, one torn by a vulture, the other being devoured by a chimaera. She is Astarte, the moon goddess, seductive and heartless.
When she first came to London, and later found a place in the Boston Public Library, the public could scarcely believe that she had been summoned from the past by an artist whose energies had so long been confined to contemporary portraiture. It is difficult to describe the consternation caused by this entire decorative scheme of which Astarte merely forms a unit. Even now, after a dozen years, the work is a source of bewilderment alike to the casual spectator and the customary admirer of John Singer Sargent. For the sake of convenience it has been assumed that there are two separate Sargents, one the painter of latter-day portraits, the other a daring mural decorator. Little of the wider-known Sargent was supposed to have appeared in any portion of the work save the frieze of the Apostles [pic]. The rest seemed by another hand. Needless to say, such subdivisions are trivial, there being but one Sargent, who, though differing from popular conception, nevertheless presents a consistent and homogeneous personality.
Before his eyes pass in continuous procession the world of art [pic], science [pic], and letters [pic], the world financial [pic], diplomatic [pic], or military [pic], and the world frankly social. To-day comes a savant, a captain of industry, or a slender, troubled child. Tomorrow it will be an insinuating Semitic Plutus; next week may bring some fresh-tinted Diana, radiant with outdoor bloom. Every one, from poet to general, from duchess to dark-eyed dancer, finds place in this shifting throng. Detached, at times indifferent, he looks from one to another with incisive glance, and transcribes each with the same incredible assurance.
Sargent’s Lucid Portraiture
Personally uncommunicative, his art
is the essence of lucidity. His vision is uniformly concrete. Wonderfully
endowed, he dedicates his ability almost exclusively to rendering the outward
semblance of things, to reflecting that which is explicit and external.
It is useless to scan these canvases in the hope of finding those qualities
which for centuries have been deemed the touchstones of portraiture. Contemplation
and reflection are by no means the rule. That fusion of individual elements
which makes for a balanced composition is often lacking. That endearing
love of color for its own sake is frequently absent. The vigorous outline
of Holbein, the rich sobriety of Titian, or the permeating magic of Leonardo
find but faint echo in the work of this modern innovator. With almost disdainful
independence he has declined to repeat the triumphs of the great forerunners.
However you may regard his contribution, it is impossible not to recognize
its insistent novelty.
Born in Florence of American parents, educated in Italy and Germany, a student at the Florence Academy and with Carolus-Duran [pic], in Paris, it is not difficult to perceive that Sargent’s point of view must inevitably be that of an unattached observer. Utterly without local bias or permanent background, he has remained all his life an onlooker. Wherever he has lived or traveled he has been absorbed by certain definite pictorial possibilities and by the personal idiosyncrasies of those about him. To the trained analysis of a physician father and the artistic enthusiasm of a mother who herself painted well, was added his own unfailing receptivity.
Nothing could have been more fortunate than the way inclination and the turn of circumstances conspired to perfect Sargent’s youthful ability and create within him that vitality of style which immediately became manifest. Whatever tendencies he may have had toward speciousness were early held in check by an old-world dignity and restraint, the gift of a city wherein art has become a hallowed instinct. Yet, in order that the spirit of things past might not press too heavily upon creative power, he left Florence, at just the right age, for Paris, where all that he had absorbed became quickly utilized.
When he was but eighteen the tall, slender youth and his gray-haired father opened the doors of Carolus-Duran’s atelier in the Boulevard Montparnasse. Directly he examined the portfolio of sketches the lad had brought, Carolus accepted him as a pupil. Although the painter of “The Lady with the Glove” and “The Lady with the Dog” has since sadly lost ground, it is doubtful whether a beginner could at that period have found anywhere in Europe a more efficient perceptor. An adept in the direct, fluent laying-on of pure, fresh color, a man whose eye for values was exact, whose handling was spirited, and whose whole manner was effective and mundane, if superficial, Carolus had little difficulty in fostering a talent in many regards so closely akin to his own.
What Sargent Learned from Carolus-Duran
They were, in the main, earnest,
industrious times — those Paris student days, the routine being chiefly
broken by certain memorable Sunday afternoon concerts at the Châtelet
or the Cirque d’Hiver [pic],
for all his life Sargent has been devoted to instrumental music. In the
way of valedictory the pupil painted a seated portrait of his master, which
was both the summary of all he head learned and a resolute promise of future
accomplishment. He was already mature in point of decision and that apt
solution of technical problems which is supposed to come with time alone.
Following the lead of Carolus, he had acquired the habit of representing
objects by mass rather than by outline, each brush-stroke corresponding
as nearly as possible in size, shape, and local color to the object itself.
Sargent’s Restless Actuality
Study in succession these vivacious likenesses and you will find something which painting has never before achieved. Velasquez’s little “Baltasar Carlos” on his plunging pony scarcely suggests motion; the pictorial couple in Gainsborough’s “Morning Walk” are really stationary; but here in Sargent’s portraits are women about to start suddenly from their chairs [pic] and men on the very point of speaking [pic]. Here is a dancer whose yellow skirt still swirls with elastic movement [pic], while there stands a painter about to lunge at the canvas with his sensitively held brush [pic]. All is restless, vivid, spontaneous. One and all, these creatures vibrate with the nervous tension of the age.
With a technique as facile as it is assertive, this magician of the palette, this Paganini of portraiture, has lured us into a new world, a world which we ourselves know well — perhaps too well — but a world hitherto undiscovered by art. Moreover, he has taken us a long way. We have, indeed, traveled far from where Holbein’s “Jane Seymour” pauses with her jeweled fingers tightly clasped, or Leonardo’s “La Giaconda” muses beside immemorial rocks and silent waters. Though you may not relish the special triumph of this youngest master, you are unable to escape it. While you may feel keenly the lack of repose in these portraits, you cannot deny their actuality. Yet after all, is this neurosis, or is it art? Perhaps it is both. In any case the sense of motion, either suggested or expressed, remains Sargent’s personal conquest, possibly, even, his chief legacy to painting.
On leaving Carolus-Duran he took a studio in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, later moving over to the Boulevard Berthier [pic]. It was only necessary for him to paint a dozen or so portraits in order to obtain an international recognitions. The “Carolus” [pic] was succeeded by an effective full-length of “Dr. Pozzi,” [pic] which still looks from the walls of the distinguished specialist’s hôtel in the Avenue d’Iéna. The “Girl with the Rose,” [pic] “Mme. Pailleron,” [pic] and a standing silhouette of “Mme. Gautreau [pic],” as daring as it was decisive, rapidly followed. Conceived in the vein of a modernized Primitive, this last-named portrait proved a veritable storm-center. Violently denounced and quite as vehemently praised, it added substantially to the painter’s fame.
Owing to several commissions and
for other reasons, Sargent was induced to move across the Channel, spending
his first few months at Broadway [pic],
in Worcestershire, where, during the lingering summer twilight, he painted
“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” [pic]
a picture so imbued with frank grace, charm of color,
and a distinct though largely accidental symmetry of pattern that it continues
to occupy a place quite apart from the main body of his art. Exhibited
the ensuing season, it was subsequently purchased for the nation by trustees
of the Chantrey Fund, a circumstance which doubtless confirmed the painter’s
inclination to settle in London, where he later took a house in Tite Street,
As the ever-widening panorama of his English and American work unrolls itself before the eye in all its clarity of tone and fluency of treatment, it is only necessary to pause before a few of the more significant canvases. The man’s productivity is astounding. Only the Titans of art have surpassed him, and by narrow margin at that. He will occasionally avail himself of the full member’s right to exhibit eight pictures at Burlington House, besides often sending four or five subjects to the New Gallery or elsewhere. So completely does he dominate his particular province that the Academy sometimes seems a one-man display.
As a rule his single figures maintain the highest average of merit, the larger groups such as “The Misses Vickers,” [pic] “Lady Elcho, Mrs. Tennant, and Mrs. Adeane” [pic], “The Ladies Alexandra, Mary, and Theo Acheson,” [pic] and “The Misses Hunter,” [pic] being more problematic. The scattered composition, the violent foreshortening, and the various lines forced into relation tend to give these works a decided lack of equilibrium. But here again criticism verges on dangerous ground. That which is novel and intrepid is not necessarily unjustifiable, and courage is, after all, more welcome than convention.
Sargent’s Variety of Subject
While the majority of these aristocratic, inquisitive creatures in iridescent satin or figured silk may look overvolatile and nervous, while these men in street dress or braided uniforms may seem a shade too positive [pic], you will now and then find countenances upon which naught is written save quiet benignity, such as those of “Miss Octavia Hill” [pic] or “Mrs. Marquand” [pic]. It is by no means a restricted choice that Sargent exercises. Next to a fox-hunting lord comes a little lady in quaint, full robe and fancy cap [pic], who may some day rank beside Titian’s “Princess Strozzi.” He has always displayed a special tenderness for children — here they play about a vast hallway where tall vases are reflected in the polished floor [pic], there they peep over the back of a Louis XVI sofa upon which is perched a vivacious mother in shell-pink evening gown [pic]. Wherever you turn you will be greeted by spirited, forceful portraiture, marked by a particular zest for exterior effects and revealing a concise, and for the moment convincing, grasp of character. At intervals, though not often, the result is clearly inadequate, as, for instance, when he indulges in an international platitude such as depicting the president of a certain great republic standing with his hand upon a sphere [pic] — the sphere insignificant, the hand weighty and ominous.
Caring little for society, Sargent devotes his entire time to the practise of his craft. His industry and persistence are unremitting, he having often been known to paint a single head over a score of times before being satisfied with the result. No pains are spared in order to acquire that appearance of ease and spontaneity which he, perhaps, prizes above all else. Although inundated with commissions, nevertheless, when haste and overproduction begin to exact their relentless toll, or when something of that world-weariness which overtook Vandyke steals upon him, he usually has the courage to leave his London studio and seek a new kingdom, a resplendent, colorful realm.
And where is this kingdom? It is the kingdom wherein we left Astarte [pic] poised upon her gleaming crescent, luxuriating in warm tints and exotic perfumes, the sound of the sistrum still falling upon here gold-tipped ears. You will possibly be surprised to learn that this modern, urban man is something of the Asiatic, that he loves with consuming intensity the glare of the sun and the sultry magic of the long-robed orientals. In the art of John Singer Sargent the blue-veiled Phenician goddess of the Boston Library by no means dwells alone. She had her prologue years before with the Moorish woman in “Smoke of Ambergris,” [pic] holding the folds of her white mantle about her head like a canopy in order to catch the narcotic fragrance circling upward in thin, vapory spirals.
The Call of the Orient
Under one guise or another this same creature appears again and again. Now she is a discreet social sphinx [pic], now a slender Egyptian girl slowly braiding her dark hair [pic]. The painter’s interest in this type is not episodic. Throughout his career the models in which he has been most absorbed are not the products of polite convention, but those individuals one meets by chance or seeks out in sheer zest.
A distinct sympathy with southern life has always shown itself in his work. Whenever he travels it is to Spain [pic], Morocco [pic], Sicily [pic], Egypt [pic], or even Palestine [pic]. He seems drawn toward these countries by an irresistible affinity. When not sketching along the shores of the Mediterranean [pic], in the by-streets of Venice [pic], or the olive groves of Capri [pic], he manages to discover the same or similar subjects whenever they may happen to be. In New York he forsakes an American sitter in order to paint Carmencita [pic]. At the Paris Exposition he dashes off numerous drawings of the Javanese dancers [pic]. His greatest successes in London have been his portraits of the astute aristocracy of finance rather than those of the more complacent aristocracy of blood. Glance, for instance, at “Asher Wertheimer,” [pic] “The Misses Wertheimer,” [pic] “Mrs. Carl Meyer and Children,” [pic] or “Mrs. Leopold Hirsch” [pic]. As a painter of Semitic types he has scarcely had an equal since the day their greatest interpreter lived and suffered in the garrets and pot-houses of Amsterdam,
His Sketches of Eastern Life
Restrained by an admirable conservatism,
the editor of this magazine has not included among our illustrations the
“Egyptian Girl,” [pic]
nor do we gaze at any of those rapid, graphic sketches, such as the “Italian
with the Rope,” [pic]
the “Bedouin Arab,” [pic]
or the “Coin Necklace” [pic].
They do not pretend to be masterpieces; they are mere
memoranda, betraying undisguised joy of observation and execution. There
is no fatigue here; all is fresh, native, and racial. This same spirit
distinguishes the larger compositions which, while fewer in number, are
relatively more important. The “Street in Venice,” [pic]
with its shawl-wrapped figure hastening past two curious idlers, and the
“Venetian Bead-Stringers,” [pic]
showing three busy workers in a dim interior, are
among the earliest and best of these casual impressions. In “El Jaleo”
and a “Spanish Dance” [pic]
you have a concentrated frenzy of movement attained
only by such men as Goya, Degas, and a few of the later Parisians. Moreover,
there is a touch of the diabolic in both the latter scenes utterly foreign
to Anglo-Saxon art.
It would, of course, be whimsical to dwell too strongly upon the Asiatic touch which permeates so much of Sargent’s work, and yet it seems an inherent characteristic. It is impossible otherwise to account for many things, particularly for the marvelous assimilation of oriental motives displayed in the Boston Public Library decorations, wherein he has suggested with so much fervor not only the conventions but the spirit of Assyrian and Egyptian art [pic]. Again in the “Dogma of the Redemption,” [pic] with its dim blues, dull reds, and mellow golds, he has caught with more than a copyist’s trick the remote beauty and impersonality of the Byzantine tradition. The portraits themselves show certain kindred qualities, such as a love of accessories, a constant insistence upon tapestried screens, pottery, and bric-à-brac in general. And deeper still lurk traces of cynicism, of indifference to humanity, of that almost contemptuous submission to the tyranny of his calling so often the legacy of those whose eyes have been turned toward the enigmatic East.
Sargent at Fifty
Despite his unchallenged success, it is by no means obvious that John Singer Sargent at fifty stands quite where he should, not is it altogether clear that he has kept the promises of youth. He was given much at the outset, hence much may rightly be expected in return. The recipient of an honorable mention at two-and-twenty and a Royal Academician by the time he had barely turned forty, he has always been a sort of Prince Charming of art, a trifle cold and unmoved, it is true, but phenomenally fortunate.
In power of vision and technical mastery he ranks among the greatest — Velasquez and Hals alone being his peers. It is a question, however, whether this dexterity has not tended to encourage a lack of humility when confronted with the graver problems of art and of life. There is always the danger of so much facility becoming perverted or remaining an end in itself rather than a means to some higher end. In spite of a keen sense of race distinctions and of the subtle variations of type or class, it cannot be maintained that Sargent’s versions of human character are notably profound. Though often shrewdly diagnostic, they are seldom more than that. He rarely seeks to lift the veil of mystery or interrogation which enshrouds certain temperaments. What he gives us is not so much personality as personalities. He possesses sight rather than insight; and most of his supposed psychology reduces itself in the final analysis to mere physiology.
Passing in review Sargent’s production as a whole in all its specific, audacious brilliance, it becomes increasingly evident that his gifts have been those of the senses rather than those of the spirit — gifts of hand and eye rather than of mind or heart. He has achieved as no one else that particular accent of to-day which is at once our pride and our reproach, but just how much he has enriched the sum of beauty already in the world, or just how much he has increased man’s love for man, or for woman, is still an open question. At present, these creatures whom his brush has called into being seem impatient and unsatisfied as well as unsatisfying. Yet, perhaps, they may soon glide imperceptibly into their pace in the perspective of art, taking on that indwelling serenity which alone is the gift of time, and which, when deserved, time seldom holds.
(Editor's Note: The article
was accompanied by the following illustrations:)
p. 265 - John Singer Sargent, from
a photo by Purdy, Boston
Special thanks to Matt Davies, of Kansas City, a friend of the JSS Gallery, for much help with this article.
By: Natasha Wallace
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