“A Good Painter Maybe,
but Rarely an Artist”
By John McEwen
The Sunday Telegraph, Oct. 18, 1998
Box 4245, GPO Sydney 2001
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Sargent at the Tate Gallery, a celebration of the work of the Edwardian portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), does him no favours at all. Sargent’s greatest artistic weakness is lack of selection. The same applies to this show (until January 17, sponsor Morgan Stanley Dean Witter), which is yet another case of a reputation destroyed by over-exposure.
He did half a dozen stunning paintings (all portraits in oil) but is given seven rooms, with a strong case made for his pedestrian watercolours – which make even Venice look dull – and a climax devoted to his horribly mechanical drawings. The baby is drowned in the bathwater.
This refusal to distinguish good from bad, to remember that an exhibition is an entertainment, not an endurance test, is the hallmark of the academic approach; but with Sargent there is at least the excuse that one of the curators, Richard Ormond, is his great-nephew. Familial piety persuades Ormond that anything his great-uncle touched turned to art.
Sargent benefited from probably the most cosmopolitan training ever received by a painter. His mother, a keen amateur watercolourist, persuaded his father to abandon a career as a surgeon in Philadelphia in favour of a life of cultural tourism in Europe. They were the sort of American expatriates who appear in the novels of Henry James, and James did indeed become one of Sargent’s closest friends. The young Sargent, only boy in a family of three, seems to have had a precocious artistic gift. His education may have been taken on the wing but it enabled him to speak four languages, play the piano expertly and to have a solid knowledge of art and literature. His pictorial technique was learned in the art schools of Florence, Dresden, Berlin and finally the Parisian studio of the painter Carolus-Duran.
This hothouse nurturing of talent, the constant moving, the parental pushing, explains Sargent’s later obsession with work, his ambiguous sexual taste (he never married), shyness except in the company of close friends, and increasing urge to travel. It is all there in his painting. He is supremely professional but rarely thoughtful; has a brilliant eye for light-effects, the passage of tones, the surface of a subject, but only occasionally delves deeper; uses his technical facility with unconscious ease but with a slick and showy mixture of laziness and self-doubt, as if to blind us to his defects. And too often paints like a camera, leaving nothing out. Invariably his pictures would benefit from cropping. How much better “Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife” would be, reduced to the figures; how intriguing “The Misses Vickers,” confined to the roundelay of their hands.
This unwillingness to select amounts to lack of imagination. He is a painter, OK, but rarely an artist. How different from his friend Monet, who transformed, rather than recorded everything he saw.
It is silly and defensive of the curators to propose Sargent as an artist of diversity, by devoting whole rooms to his impressionistic landscapes and interiors, by illustrating a watercolour (albeit beneficially cropped) on the catalogue cover suggesting he is as distinguished a watercolourist/ landscapist as a portraitist: and that it is more proper to paint lemons than social climbers.
If the show had been on Edwardian portraiture, with Sargent given one large room and placed in the context of Lavery, Furse, de László, Nicholson, Orpen, Munnings and others, it would have been far more revealing and done his reputation far more good.
Into that room one would have put his thoughtful masterpieces, all of them displaying an attention to detail lacking when he tossed off commissions for maximum pay and minimum effort – a lavish McTavishness epitomised by the messes of the dresses in “Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and her Daughter Rachel.”
No wonder he chucked in portraiture, more or less, after he was 50. It bored him, unless there was the spark of attraction or friendship. There is a unique sexual chemistry in the two portraits of the exotic Madame Gautreau and of W. Graham Robertson, his ultimate single-sitter masterpiece; beguilement in his loveliest female portrait, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. And three of his finest efforts are of friends: Henry James, R[obert] L[ouis] Stevenson and Vernon Lee. There is also rare insight in the portrait of John D. Rockefeller – pointy face, tight lips and revealing body-language of arms and legs defensively crossed; a subtle exposure of the mentality of the self-made mogul.
But his ultimate masterpiece, rightly and grandly framed by the entrance to Room 2, is the vast and gloomy “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” Here, in a single canvas, is all the melancholy opulence of the age, the oppressive stillness before the devastating storm of the First World War. If he had done nothing else, this one picture would justify Sargent’s place in the pantheon of painters.
Special thanks to Matt Davies, of Kansas City, a friend of the JSS Gallery, for sending me a note regarding this article.
By: Natasha Wallace
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