|The Fall and Rise of
The reasons for the demise of Sargent's popularity and his art's rebirth
see how shocking the Post-Impressionist show was to the public, but it
was like nothing ever seen.
But the fairest and probably the truest reflection came from a letter of Eric Gill (1882-1940 British sculptor and graphic artist) to Sir William Rothenstein (1874-1945, British painter)
“You are missing an awful excitement just now being provided for us in London, to wit, the exhibition of Post-Impressionists now at the Grafton Galleries. All the critics are tearing one another’s eyes out over it, and the sheep and goats are inextricably mixed up. The show quite obviously represents a reaction and transition, and so, if, like Fry, you are a factor in that reaction and transition, then you like the show. If, like MacColl and Robert Ross, you are inseparably connected with the things reacted against and the generation from which it is a transition, then you don’t like it.”Eric couldn’t have put it better, Sargent was clearly with the older generation. In a caricature of the show done by Henry Tonks, Fry is shown holding up a dead cat, a symbol of pure form, to an unimpressed audience of staid Royal Academist; and right in the front row was Sargent.
More than halfway through the exhibition Fry goes public in an article printed in the Nation. In some confusion on Fry’s part he includes Sargent in a list of artists who supported the ideas of the Post-Impressionist. Sargent feels compelled to respond and he does so in two open letters to the Nation (January 7th and 14th respectively). In the first letter Sargent concluded:
“The fact is that I am absolutely sceptical as to their [Post-Impressionist] having any claim whatever to being works of art . . ” (Charteris, P.192)
It was the worst possible thing any artist could say about another artist.
Desond MacCarthy said later that in the mist of the turmoil Roger Fry “remained strangely calm and ‘did not give a damn’” as to what anyone thought. But it clearly did bother. Sargent was the eight-hundred pound gorilla, hugely popular and his words weighed heavier than any minor critic's. Though he may never have admitted it, the zeal and ferocity in which Fry dug in and fought on was like a persecuted prophet.
The sting from Sargent must have festered for years for when Fry finally reviewed Sargent’s memorial Exhibition the words came haunting back:
“I am sure that he [Sargent] was no less distinguished and genuine as a man than, in my opinion, he was striking and undistinguished as an illustrator and nonexisting as an artist” (Charteris, P.194)
Scawen Blunt seems to have been quite
character. In 1899, he described John Singer Sargent after first
him in London on the front steps of the Wyndham
family home: "A rather
fellow in pot hat, whom at my first sight I took to be a superior
(quoted in Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, 1994, p. 97)