John Singer Sargeant
by William Dunlap
What are we to make of the resurgence of John Singer Sargeant? The foundations of so many of Modernism’s lofty claims are built over the graves of the reputations of artist’s like Sargeant. No one in the 19th century painted quite like Sargeant. Needless to say, no one in the 20th century dared even to try. Now, at the dawn of the 21st, there is renewed and serious interest in the art of portraiture. The credit or blame is often given to the overwhelming popularity of the recent Sargeant retrospective seen at London’s Tate Gallery, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and Washington’s National Gallery of Art. WETA’s high definition television program, “John Singer Sargeant: Outside the Frame” is sure to add more fuel to this flame.
Born in 1856 to expatriate American parents living in Italy, young John and his family moved often and with ease about Europe. Their precocious son excelled in languages, music and painting. As his homeland reeled from the aftermath of civil war, John Singer Sargeant was being drilled in the virtues of direct observation and bravura painting, in the manner of Velazquez, by his mentor and Paris’s leading portraitist, Emile Carolus- Duran.
The great early triumph of this 26 year old American’s meteoric rise in the art world came in the 1882 Paris Salon where he exhibited his life-sized Spanish themed painting “El Jaleo,” (Ruckus or Uproar,) to much critical acclaim. This darkly lit dramatization of a gypsy flamenco dancer and her entourage has a life force all its own. The viewer is transported to Andalusia. One can almost smell the dust kicked up by the senorita’s flashing heels, hear the guitar’s bold chords, and the staccato rhythms of the castenets. The crowds went wild.
This Parisian love fest with Sargeant would soon, come to an abrupt end thanks in part to another American, the New Orleans born beauty and social fixture, Virginie Gautreau. Sargeant could not have foreseen the “jaleo” that was to greet his painting of her pale white skin and revealing gown with shoulder strap slightly askew. “Portrait of Madame X” brought the full fury of French xenophobia, as petulant then as now, down on the both of them when it was exhibited in the 1884 Salon.
The shy and reticent Sargeant withdrew from public life. The stream of portrait commissions dried up. As for Mrs. Gautreau, we do not know. But Sargeant soon decamped for London where he was to make his name and fortune in the target rich environment of Edwardian England’s parlors and country houses.
For the next several decades, a Sargeant portrait became a rite of passage in upper class British and American society. One tour de force after another flowed from his brush. “Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose,” “Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson,” “Lady Agnew of Lochnau,” “Miss Carl Meyer and her Children,” “Lord Dalhousie,” and numerous paintings of Asher Westheimer family members come to mind.
One portrait in particular, that of a high ranking colonial administrator, Sir Frank Swettenham,, seems particularly compelling and open to current interpretation. Lushly painted in crimson, white and gold, this work, in the collection of the Singapore History Museum succeeds on several levels. Its dazzingly likeness not only captures Swettenham, but says a great deal about the the character and bearing of the kind of men who made Britain’s many foreign enterprises possible. All around the casually posed martial figure, Sargeant’s incomparable hand dashes in the pomp and paraphenalia of empire. The quickness of his brushstrokes suggests both the pride and temporal nature of the great English commonwealth, on which the sun has forever set.
Sargeant’s formidable facility has won him few friends among modern critics. “He invented nothing - changed nothing,” is their mantra. He flirted with the avante garde - painting plein air pictures such as “Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood.” On any given day he could knock out state of the art Impressionist works like “The Old Chair,” and “A Boating Party,” as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?”
As one century ended and another began, Sargeant’s life among the grandees seemed to satisfy less and less. Around 1907, financially secure and more than a little bored, he gave up portraiture for weightier themes, like the Boston Public Library’s mural “Triumph of Religion.” He also masterfully embraced the difficult medium of watercolor.
He continued to travel, here and abroad, but the gilded age of Belle Epoque Europe was about to change forever. The Great War came, and toward its end took Sargeant with it. He spent months at the front in preparation for his 1918 Imperial War Museum commission. His largest and most ambitious work, “Gassed,” is ironically surpassed by the brilliance of the project’s working drawings.
If the artist’s job is to tell what it was like to be alive, then John Singer Sargeant has certainly earned a place in the pantheon. But then, there is a self portrait from 1906 in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery that is notorious for how little it tells us. Sargeant’s greatest act of artistry may in fact be how well he camouflaged his personal life, -- and bravo for that. His art has given us quite enough.
Copyright 2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.