Rodin's quote: Sargent is the Van Dyck of our time, is often used in thumb-nail profiles of JSS.
But what did he mean by it?
Some have concluded that Rodin meant that Sargent was the Edwardian equivalent of the Court artist, painting the new emerging "rulers" of capital and enterprise -- the rich and the famous of his time. Others have felt that it was a backhanded complement -- that like Van Dyck, Sargent painted his patrons to please them and pocketed the money.
Both interpretations have bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, if you look at the whole body of John's work, to call him a Court artist really doesn't convey the breadth of Sargent's talent. Certainly he was at the pinnacle of portraiture among his contemporaries, but he was much more than that.
Secondly, people have tried to point to examples of where John painted his subject's with more flattery than they deserved. The problem is, there is as much in the literature about how people were upset, or worried about how John would portray them as there is over something that was done more pleasing than they deserved. And comparing just one photograph of the person with the painting isn't a good way of telling either (have you ever had a "bad" photograph of yourself?).
So what did Van Dyck mean when he said that?
People have looked too hard for meaning here. Sure, the sound bite looks good in a profile -- everyone knows who Van Dyck was. But there is no hidden meaning here. If you were Rodin in the year 1902, and you saw the work John was doing THAT year -- the eight portraits hanging at the Royal Academy and especially paintings such as Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry, and the Dutches of Poland (n/a), ANY reasonable person would come to the same conclusion -- the painting exhibited that year clearly show Sargent to be a throw-back to the court artists of another era. There is no overall appraisal of Sargent by Rodin. This is an off handed comment about one show.
The use of it today to describe Sargent does show an attempt by some to label Sargent. He is, after all, somewhat of an enigma when it comes to art historians; and like so many things about Sargent, if you want to see him as the Van Dyck of his time, there is clearly enough evidence to do so -- but likewise you need to turn a blind eye to the rest of his work.