- Historic Sites
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
Thus, unlike almost any other painter one can think of, Sargent was able to follow his natural bent and to begin at an early age re-creating the world that it had been his passion to observe. It is not surprising that he rapidly attained technical mastery, and Henry James wrote in an article about his work: “In an altogether exceptional degree does he give us the sense that the intention and the art of carrying it out are for him one and the same thing. … perception with him is already by itself a kind of execution. … It is as if painting were pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling.”
James concluded that Sargent’s Lady with the Rose and his portrait of the Boit children offer the “slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.” This sentence aptly hits the essence of Sargent’s genius and its greatest problem.
It sometimes seems that Sargent brought nothing but his eyes to painting. He never went in for theories of painting, and he was inclined to be impatient with art critics. The only important things to him were looking and painting, not talking or writing. He had no particular interest in politics, domestic or international, or in ideologies or philosophies. He was concerned with the immediate thing that he could see or hear or touch. Besides painting, he loved to read fiction and poetry, in German, French, and Italian as well as English, and he played the piano with the skill of one who might have been a concert artist had he elected that field. But his indifference to larger human issues (as opposed to private relationships, where he was always warm and responsive) was sometimes distressing to his friends. Henry James, for example, who had passionately taken up the Allied cause in the great war and who had become a British subject to express his indignation at the failure of America to come in, could not understand Sargent’s detachment. But how unreal the conflict was to the painter was shown by his remark on a visit to the front as late as 1918: “I suppose there is no fighting on Sundays.”
Hostile critics have jumped on this aspect of Sargent’s nature to discount the intellectual and emotional content of his work. Roger Fry wrote of The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant : “Since Sir T[homas| Lawrence’s time no one has been able thus to seize the exact cachet of fashionable life, or to render it in paint with a smartness and piquancy which so exactly corresponds to the social atmosphere itself. [Sargent] appears to harbor no imaginations that he could not easily avow at the afternoon tea-table he so brilliantly depicts.”
Sargent gave some support to this kind of criticism by his answer to Joseph Pulitzer’s suggestion that he explore his sitter’s character in conversation before starting on the likeness: “No, I paint what I see. Sometimes it makes a good portrait; so much the better for the sitter. Sometimes it does not; so much the worse for the both of us. But I don’t dig beneath the surface for things that don’t appear before my eyes.”
I suggest it does not really matter that Sargent had no imaginations that he could not “easily avow at the afternoon tea-table.” What he was intent on bringing out was as much of a personality as a disciplined social figure would allow to appear on the surface—or would not be able to prevent from appearing on the surface. Deeply indoctrinated in the mannerisms, the stances, the poses, the clothes, the background furniture, the makeup, the hairdos, the smiles and reservations of people in society, he was able to probe as deeply as a portraitist need. He did not have to talk at length to Asher Wertheimer to catch the craftiness and worldliness, the perfect taste coupled with the graspingness of the fine arts dealer.
Consider what we see in his portrait of Mme. Edouard Pailleron, an early work. The wife of the popular playwright stands on a lawn, ruffled by a faint breeze, although she is dressed formally in black. It is as if she had been asked to come out of the house for a moment to pose for a photograph. The way she holds her skirt and almost frowns might indicate a faint impatience at being kept from her duties as a hostess within. Indeed, she seems to belong more to the marble balustrade in the background than to the lawn and the leaves. And yet one receives no sense of an artificial being. If Madame Pailleron is an elegant hostess, she is also a highly competent household manager. It is easy to imagine her in rougher garb, weeding and hoeing. She is unmistakably Gallic.