- Historic Sites
To Henry James, as to his fellow expatriates Whistler and Sargent, the culture of the Old World was “vast, vague and dazzling,” yet they could never quite forget or abandon the New
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
The years that followed saw him painting less and spending more time in France and Italy (there is a story that in Venice he once hired a barge with a band to play “Yankee Doodle,” added some of his paintings, and floated it down the Grand Canal). He became, in time, a figure from the romantic past (Marcel Proust, spying Whistler’s lavender gloves at a reception, pocketed them as a memento). The publication, in 1890, of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of notes, letters, and documents having to do with the various scandals and aesthetic controversies he had been involved in, revived for a time the legend of his earlier weight and formidability. And during the last years of his life a visit to his studio (where, it is true, he was not doing much painting) became, for junketing Americans, one of the things to do, like seeing Notre Dame or the Tower of London.
Though no longer a lion of art or society, he did not lose his wit and vivacity. In 1895, when Whistler was sixty-one, Arthur Symons wrote that he had never seen “anyone so feverishly alive as this little old man, with bright withered cheeks … darting eyes … and above all … exquisite hands, never at rest.”
There could not have been a greater contrast to Whistler than John Sargent. A stolid, phlegmatic man, tall and robust and possessed of astounding energy and stamina, he had none of Whistler’s mannerisms. He would never have dreamed of devising an emblem for himself, such as Whistler’s “W” in the shape of a butterfly, nor of trying to advance his name in any way but through the solid, craftsmanlike progress of his painting. And though Sargent was also privately critical of most Victorian art—and was, in fact, regarded as something of a revolutionary himself—he had none of Whistler’s penchant for tipping over applecarts. It was enough for him to labor pretty much within the established order, being content for the most part to let his reputation slowly grow until he eventually became the man by whom, if one were anyone at all, one simply had to be painted.
Sargent was greatly helped by Henry James when the former arrived in England in 1885. James’s circle of friendships extended by now to the great houses of the realm, to politics and the intellectual world, and of course to the arts, and he tirelessly introduced the young painter around. He wrote to his brother about the “gifted Sargent, whose work I admire exceedingly, and who is a remarkable artistic nature and charming fellow,” and the two developed a close friendship—Sargent in his laconic way following James into dozens of drawing rooms, where they became known as “the inseparables.” (Sargent and Whistler, it might be remarked, respected each other but were never close, while between James and Whistler there existed a definite coolness, based largely on irreconcilable differences of personality.)
Though Sargent’s reputation grew steadily in England, it was America that gave him his first real boost. He went there in 1887 to paint a society matron’s portrait, and soon found himself much sought after. A laudatory essay in Harper’s by James, timed to coincide with his arrival, helped considerably, as did a meeting with Mrs. Jack Gardner, the wealthy Bostonian who was becoming one of the great patrons and art buyers of that golden age of American collecting. Soon a friend could write in his diary of hearing of Sargent around New York “being entertained very much and painting Mrs. Vanderbilt and others.” Upon his return to England he found himself in noisy demand, with everyone from the nouveaux riches to the scions of ancient houses, from generals to actresses, clamoring to sit for him.
As the years went by Sargent’s fame rose, together with his prices. He became almost as familiar a figure in New York and Boston as in London, traveling frequently back and forth across the Atlantic trying to keep up with the flood of commissions. In time there was scarcely anyone of importance whose portrait he hadn’t painted. He made the official death sketch of King Edward VII (earlier he had refused a knighthood from that sovereign because of his American citizenship, which he always prized) and painted portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson during their Presidencies, remarking about the latter that “it takes a man a long time to look like his portrait, as Whistler used to say—but he is doing his best.”
During World War I Sargent served the British government as a war artist, the 62-year-old man astonishing the troops with his unconcern for danger and his endurance. Gradually he wearied of portrait painting, both because of the atmosphere of social pressure and snobbery that surrounded it and because it failed to satisfy his artist’s nature. He took fewer and fewer commissions, turning to mural painting and still life. His attitude toward “paughtraits,” as he came to call them, may be seen in an incident that occurred toward the end of his life, although one suspects that taste and political values played their part as well.