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A Sargent Portrait
It took half a century for his critics to see his subjects as clearly as he did; but today he stands as America’s preeminent portraitist
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
John Singer Sargent, in common with Holbein and Van Dyck, was an international painter of portraits who did his major work in England. It was in his studio in London’s Tite Street, during the 1880s and 1890s and in this century up to 1907, when he abandoned what he derisively called “paughtraits,” that he re-created on canvas the world of the AngloAmerican upper classes. His success was as great as that of his two predecessors, but his posthumous reputation has had a bumpier time.
That it should have taken a nose dive right after his death, in 1925, is surely attributable in part to the distastefulness of his subject matter to liberal minds. What could have seemed more trivial, more archaic, more socially irresponsible, even more vicious, in the grim years of depression and world war, than all those strutting peers and peeresses, those lavishly dressed Yankee millionairesses, those belaced and beribboned children, those yapping lapdogs, those gleaming parlors and stately columns? Roger Fry summed up the attitude of the contras when he wrote, “That Sargent was taken for an artist will perhaps seem incredible to the rising generation. …”
The portrait painters of the more distant past had an easier fate. The court of Henry VlIl, which lives today so vividly in the art of Holbein, terrifying in the pale, set intensity of those faces confronting the remorseless game of politics and death, a game that Tudor courtiers seemed doomed to play even when they knew the odds were against them, arouses no resentment in us. It is too far away, and, anyway, the bad guys got their comeuppance. Even the wicked king was cuckolded and died in agony. And who could hold any grudge against those beautiful cavaliers of the Caroline court or the sad, pensive, charming monarch who lost his foolish head? But I daresay a Roundhead critic could have been as devastating about Van Dyck as Roger Fry was about Sargent.
We are now far enough away from Sargent’s era to have lost our indignation over its shortcomings. We can admit that his Lord Ribblesdale rivals Van Dyck’s Charles I, that it is the perfect portrait of a British aristocrat. The tall, gaunt, graceful figure, whose height is emphasized by the silhouette, stands before us in the hunting habit of the Master of Buckhounds, holding a whip that he will hardly have to apply but that he would easily be capable of using. The expression on the long, handsome face is gravely courteous; there is even a hint of humor in the serenely gazing eyes; the man is obviously intelligent and of strong character. But part of his strength comes from his absolute acceptance of his social position and from his absolute faith in the hierarchy in which he is the fourth Baron Ribblesdale. And the fact that, despite features worthy of a prime minister, he chooses to be represented as a Master of Buckhounds has its own message about the role that the peerage still played in 1902.
There probably has never been an artist who had an easier start than Sargent. His early years and education joined perfectly with his talent to create an artist suited to precisely the world that he was to paint. His parents were American expatriates who lived a migratory life in rented villas and apartments in old palazzi from Rome to Dresden, following the warm weather north, except when cheaper prices pointed in a chillier direction. They saw the other expatriates, the local gentry, and an occasional artist, but they had little to do with the makers and doers of the business and political worlds. They were tireless sightseers and sketchers, and young John grew up in an atmosphere where beautiful things and their reproduction were deemed of the first importance.
Sargent had very little formal schooling: tutors and voluminous reading, in addition to the patently sightseeing, constituted the bulk of his education. He never had any training in science or law or economics, and all his life he was quite helpless in practical matters, leaving the large sums of money that he ultimately earned to be invested by others. But what saved him from the dilettantism that must have to some extent informed the family circle was the all-seeing painter’s eye that he was given every opportunity and encouragement to develop. His father had wanted him to go into the U.S. Navy, but as this prospect had little charm to a youth already intent on landscapes and human faces and who did not visit his native land until his twentieth year, the indulgent father did not press the matter. When his family moved to Paris, John was sent to study under Carolus-Duran, the most popular teacher of the day, who encouraged his pupil’s taste both for what was best in the old academic art and for what was needed to refresh it from the new and exciting school of impressionism.