Skip to main content

A Sargent Portrait

June 2024
8min read

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

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.


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.

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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.