Art

The Unsettled Legacy of John Singer Sargent

Pailleron Children
John Singer Sargent, “Pailleron Children” (1880), oil on canvas 60 × 69 in (courtesy Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections, purchased with funds from the Edith M. Usry Bequest, in memory of her parents Mr. and Mrs. George Franklin Usry, the Dr. and Mrs. Peder T. Madsen Fund, and the Anna K. Meredith Endowment Fund)

John Singer Sargent’s brilliance as a painter should be obvious to anyone with eyes. And yet a perennial caveat inevitably surfaces in much of the discussion that accompanies exhibitions of his work. There seems to be a near-universal need for curators to address in exculpatory terms Sargent’s position within the foundational narrative of modern art. From the moment his career took off in the 1880s he has had an asterisk hanging off the end of his name. With all the prerequisites of an early modern master he was apparently (and to confirm the critical literature, unforgivably) reluctant to participate in the more radical deviations that were in the air. Before his legacy could be established, he was downgraded as too concerned with optical veracity and the vanity of his sitters.

These oversimplified verdicts have outrun their usefulness, and a current exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an opportunity to reassess the relationship between Sargent’s skill and his decision to retain a fidelity to nature that was in the last decades of the 19th century becoming understandably discredited by the sentimentality of official Salon painting. And it comes at just the right moment, because we have reached a point in our postmodern tangles where an unprecedented lack of skill, particularly among painters, is severely limiting the possibilities of a medium that ought to be as alive and as fluid as contemporary music. What’s needed is a fresh look at the work of painters like Sargent, who embody that crucial moment in art history just before things began to change so rapidly.

Henry James
John Singer Sargent, “Henry James” (1913), oil on canvas, 33–1/2 × 26–1/2 in. (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London photo © National Portrait Gallery, London) (click to enlarge)

In its focus on the artist’s lesser-known canvases, the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends provides this fresh look. These are the outliers — not the commissioned showpieces (although there are some) but smaller, often unfinished efforts executed in friendship, or taken as opportunities to render likenesses of culturally significant individuals that Sargent admired. Comparing one canvas to another reveals him to be a restless if modest experimenter.

Still, the curators make an effort to declare Sargent a modernist by association. How, Richard Ormond asks in the introductory essay, can we dismiss a man who insisted, “… on the material of paint, on the flux and instability of surface textures …” — pertinent questions that are all but abandoned in the rest of the catalogue’s 250 pages, which are devoted mostly to recording who the artist painted and how important they were culturally.

Produced in London where the exhibition originated, the catalogue is divided into six individually authored sections, each with extensive and invaluable historical reporting on where Sargent was, and who he was with at any given time. But the commentary accompanying each reproduction is replete with every sitter’s accomplishments as well. They read like resume summaries meant to convince us that Sargent was significant by the light of the illustrious company he kept. It is the right conclusion presented through the wrong argument. For a painter whose reputation suffered from what was judged too cozy a relationship with a gaggle of arriviste peacocks, this attempt to congratulate him for being closer to a more acceptable group is just as superficially conceived.

But the work itself easily allows visitors to set aside the show’s emphasis on who is in each painting and focus instead on how Sargent captured, often in radically different ways, something of each soul that sat before him. For instance, there is the portrait of actor Eleonora Duse that Sargent managed to paint in a sitting of less than an hour. It ended abruptly when Ms. Duse decided she could sit no longer. The paint is gossamer thin, the brushwork provisional, yet the image of a supremely confident woman dares the viewer to meet her gaze, revealing her substantial self-regard with the barest of means. It is as intense a rendering of a subject’s personality as a typical Lucien Freud portrait is intense in its rendering of Freud’s struggle with the medium. I do not mean the comparison as a pejorative, but as indicating the range painting can stretch to when put to its maximum flexibility.

Charles Stuart Forbes, ca. 1882 or ca. 1889 Oil on canvas Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Gift of Virginia Steele Scott Foundation Image: © Courtesy of the Huntington
John Singer Sargent, “Charles Stuart Forbes” (ca. 1882 or ca. 1889), oil on canvas (courtesy Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Gift of Virginia Steele Scott Foundation, image © Courtesy of the Huntington) (click to enlarge)

Of slightly larger dimensions, a portrait of expat colleague Charles Stuart Forbes is another example of Sargent’s ability to create from a relatively brief session a likeness that places the sitter’s presence (and in this instance his surroundings as well) with the most direct and assertive gestures. And yet it is just a sketch, with an elegant, personal note to Forbes scratched into the wet paint. In its every aspect the portrait speaks to how far we have strayed from what artists once considered basic, even casual proficiency.

Because the focus is on Sargent’s more intimate work, a few blemishes surface. A rendering of painter Antonio Mancini is remarkable for its uncharacteristic coarseness, which must have been an early and prevalent view, for the painting’s provenance reads like a Seinfeld episode. Given as a gift from Sargent to Mancini, the recipient, perhaps disappointed in how it came out, re-gifted it to a wealthy patron’s cook, who subsequently unloaded it onto his employer’s son, who dutifully turned it over to his dad, who discreetly gave it back to Sargent, who years later gave it again to Mancini, who this time, perhaps out of guilt, donated it to the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Rome — an ironically backhanded triumph in Sargent’s otherwise anemic modernist standing.

There are also quite a few examples of figures in landscape settings that rank among the most successful of their type in any era. “The Artist Sketching (Dwight Blaney)” has the same uncanny feeling for sunlight that Sargent’s watercolors demonstrate consistently. Blaney, sitting on a large stone in a shaded hillside wears all white, which contrasts to the deep yet luminous earthy greens of the forest behind him, while also giving his ruddy complexion a perfectly balanced glow. In getting the warmth and the atmospherics of a summer afternoon by rendering a mostly shaded area, Sargent displays a level of color alchemy that I have not seen anywhere, even in Monet who was his occasional painting companion.

The Artist Sketching, 1922 Oil on canvas Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf, Sr.
John Singer Sargent, “The Artist Sketching” (1922), oil on canvas (courtesy Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf, Sr.)

The exhibition is immense, 92 pieces in all, and gives visitors more than enough to ponder regarding why an unusually talented painter might have chosen caution at the threshold of a revolutionary era. It has been an open question for nearly a century, with each decade suggesting slightly different responses. In a 1956 essay for Art News, Fairfield Porter suggested that the criticism Sargent received in the 1920s for having produced, “… empty bravura passages of just paint …” indicated how those critics had been blind to anything beyond strict formalist concerns. Porter then went on to suggest that in his own time of gestural abstraction, Sargent actually looked prescient.

It may be the fate of painters considered marginal to have their legacy assembled piecemeal, with no enduring consensus ever settling into place. So perhaps this time around it will be Sargent’s extraordinary skill at matching paint with nature that will draw the spotlight, and in doing so offer fresh ideas to a community of visual artists hungry for encouragement in an art world that seems to have mislaid much of painting’s deeper history.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 4. 

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