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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
Mrs. Henry White, on the other hand, whose husband was a diplomat, is equally unmistakably American. She stands, tall, proud, and beautiful, with the confidence wrought of grace, discipline, lineage, and money, and yet for all this she is not quite sure that she is going to be, in the glare of London “crushes,” the success that she deserves to be. But she may if she tries, and God knows she will try! One can feel it in the serene resolution of her stare and in the way the fingers of her left hand grip those opera glasses. Allan Nevins, Henry White’s biographer, told me once of a contemporary of his subject who had described the difference between Mrs. White’s greeting of a duke and of a commoner as “aweinspiring.”
A second American woman, Lady Astor, does not have Mrs. White’s intensity; she is simply radiantly confident of the inexhaustible supply of her own beauty and energy. In this charming picture Sargent evokes all the fervor and idealism of a new world turning back to conquer the old. It is almost too much. Do we catch a hint of the bossy, eccentric old parliamentarian in the foxy smile and coy pose of this dazzling creature? Perhaps I am going too far, but if Sargent saw all, he may have seen the future.
When the sitter had no distinct character of face, Sargent made up for it as best he could in the costume and setting. Mrs. Hugh Hammersley is a case in point. One sees that she was a vapid, amiable, very pretty Englishwoman, but the dignity of her rich pink dress and of the lavish gold background redeem the picture. Henry Adams was much struck by this. Was Sargent consciously insulting the whole money culture, he wondered? Was he intent on exposing the soul (if there was one) of the female “goldbug”? I do not think so. Sargent was simply painting what he saw.
Even when the sitter was not sympathetic, even when she posed reluctantly and then refused to finish, as did the lazy, shallow Mme. Pierre Gautreau, he was able to make a masterpiece. She stands before us, the embodiment of female vanity, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to justify it but the incomparable beauty of her body and skin, which she shows off in a pose so effectively dramatic as to excuse its absurdity.
Sargent was to some extent the victim of his own success. The world thronged to his studio, and no matter what he charged for a portrait, the world was willing to pay. Friends intervened to plead with him to take this or that sitter; it was hard to say no. A popular cartoon showed him looking from his studio window in despair at the long line of elegant carriages clogging Tite Street. Eventually the sheer quantity of the work began to take its toll on the quality. One feels in some of the later portraits that the artist is beginning to be bored. The decline can be seen by contrasting The Wyndham Sisters , of 1899, with The Marlborough Family , done six years later. The former shows the master at the height of his powers: the dazzling white of the dresses against the somber background makes it a dramatic triumph. The duke and duchess, on the other hand, standing in a stiff, unlikely pose with two sons and two Blenheim spaniels on a grand marble stairway under draped war banners, seem dull and pompous. One can see why Sargent, his pockets now full, sought to give up the portrait business in 1907.
It remained, one is happy to add, for him to do his finest watercolors, and charcoal sketches, some as good as any of his portraits.