As an artist 1 welcome the reappraisal of old masters, but I must take issue with Louis Auchincloss’s glorification of John Singer Sargent (“A Sargent Portrait,” October/November 1986). The comparison to Anthony Van Dyck is ill-conceived; Sargent is not his equal. Both painted aristocracy, but Van Dyck’s brush never ran away with itself as if to escape boredom, as did Sargent’s. Van Dyck matched virtuoso technique with a seventeenth-century Flemish ethic of nobility, intelligence, and a telling description of even the most vacuous sitters. Here is an important distinction: It is not that the social class Sargent painted is offensive; what is maddening was his lack of intellectual or emotional interest in his subjects.
Sargent painted some terrific pictures, and his visual pyrotechnics are dazzling replications of surface effects, but I think great artists search out something more integral in their subjects. 1 suggest that “America’s preeminent portraitist” is more likely John Singleton Copley or Thomas Eakins.