Coping with Sargent
 

by Gregg Kreutz

In Boston these days, at the Museum of Fine Arts, artists can be seen staggering out of the John Singer Sargent show looking decidedly green about the gills. Artists are a sensitive bunch, and this comprehensive collection of Sargent paintings can put a severe strain on a delicate person's self confidence. Representational painters, who sometimes spend weeks trying to get a lemon slice to look like a lemon slice, are justifiably unsettled by seeing that Sargent could, in what looks like a couple of minutes, dash off a whole drawing room.

Until recently, Sargent wasn't that much of a threat. Painters and critics, when Sargent's name came up, said the word facile, and that seemed to dispose of him. Someone would say "Sargent," someone else would say "facile," and the case was closed. For most of this century, facile attached itself to Sargent like a fourth name; as a consequence, other artists could happily go about their business unthreatened by his skill. Unfortunately, this comfortable state of affairs has fallen apart lately, and with Sargent's reemergence, artists are left starkly exposed to unfriendly comparisons.

The show in Boston is particularly brutal. Room after room is filled with absolutely amazing paintings: striking portraits, beautiful interiors, dazzling landscapes, all of them painted with Sargent's unusual blend of bravura and sensitivity. Standouts include: Fumee d'ambre gris (1880), Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892), An Interior in Venice (1898), Asher Wert-heimer (1898), Henry Lee Higgin (1903).

 Fumee d'ambre gris (1880)

Fumee d'ambre gris (1880)

What makes these paintings so vivid, so attractive? The late nineteenth century was overflowing with accomplished painters turning credible depictions of similarly their subjects, but Sargent makes most them look like old news. What's the difference? Why do we amble by those other artists and screech to a halt in front of a Sargent? Obviously his drawing skill is a factor. Even though, it is said, he only did minimal preliminary drawing, his feel for gesture, proportion, internal structure, and dimensionality gives his work an underpinning of highly accomplished draughtsmanship. His feel for light is also unusual. He was clearly a light connoisseur and could communicate the nuances of full light, half light, top light, side light, high light, skylight, twilight, and any other kind of light with unrivaled ease. But what perhaps separates him, most of all, from his talented contemporaries was his ability to synthesize. All good realistic painters are trying to synthesize, trying to reduce complex reality into as few components as possible. Sargent was able to push that process further. His art was elegantly reductive. He could take a highly complex scene—a busy Venetian exterior, a partly shadowed figure, a park scene at dusk—and reduce it to simple, beautiful, passages of paint. The quickness and ease with which he achieved this reduction is made evident on the canvas. Instead of hiding the brush-work in the manner of Bougereau, Gerome, or other academics, Sargent used his brush to show us his thought process. To show us, in effect, the essential components of reality. Plus he did hands really well.

So while there's no question that this artist is one of the great talents in the history of painting, before other painters just give up and fall on their palette knives, I feel obliged to point out a few of the areas where Sargent, in my humble opinion, is not quite so triumphant.



Structure
Sargent was a brilliant painter who could paint anything he looked at and paint it with beauty and grace. Sometimes though—sometimes— his pictures lacked coherent organization. Occasionally his skill got in the way of what could be seen as meaningful picture construction. Instead of orchestrating his painting towards a climax, using the light to lead us to the center of interest, there are Sargent paintings that look like he put in people or objects wherever there was a vacancy. In The Hermit (1908), for example, the light is lavished with great, thick paint upon the rocks, trees, and deer, while the hermit himself—presumably the star of the show—gets just a few meager dollops. The picture is lively, every-thing is painted beautifully, but ultimately, if I may be so presumptuous, it doesn't create much impact because the focus is so diffused. As Orwell said about Dickens (also presumptuously), "Glorious gargoyles, rotten architecture."

 Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

Size
Some of these paintings, or more specifically, the people in the paintings, are just too big. Whether it was to please: the patron or just a quirk on his part, there are a few paintings in the show that look weirdly inflated. Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron (1881), for example, in reproduction looks like a sensitive depiction of two charming little French children; seen on the wall in actual size, it makes you think that somebody has been dipping into the steroids. The same can be said of The Sisters Vickers (1884) and, most unfortunately, On His Holiday (1901), a painting only a growth hormone distributor could love.

Politics
One reason Sargent has had such trouble sustaining Great Artist status during this century is that so much of his energy went in to cheering on the ruling class. Sargent had a wonderful feel for the aristocratic gesture. He could do languid grace like no one else, and he got his subjects to look so comfortably at ease in their luxurious surroundings that we almost feel they deserve all that stuff. But around 1920, puffing up the ruling class fell into serious disfavor when people noticed that it was the ruling class who had sent everyone to their deaths in World War I. After that, people started to gravitate to artists who had a mote off-with-their-heads sensibility. Now, with greed and wretched excess in full swing again, Sargent is back in favor, but maybe there is something unsettling about so much brilliance in the service of a group who would cheerfully, no doubt, throw most of us off their property.


Emotion
There is a subtle but recurring theme running through much of Sargent's work. It shows up in his portraits as a kind of defiant self-containment, and in group pictures often as structured separation. Altogether, it adds up to a feeling of alienation. In the numerous paintings of just two people, for example, the two tend to be pointedly looking in different directions {Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife, 1889; Two Girls in White Dresses, 1909; Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, 1885), and when more are shown, they often are placed in positions of explicit non-connection {The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882). Exceptions occur in some mother-child paintings and sister paintings possibly due (if I may indulge in inappropriate psychological speculation) to the fact that Sargent's only (apparent) real life connections were to his mother and sisters. This estranged trait isn't a bad thing. Who says artists can't depict detachment and lack of connection? But it is a quality that keeps the tone cool and distant, and it may keep Sargent, for all his brilliance, from generating what sometimes a less skillful artist can generate: passion.

 An Interior in Venice, 1899

An Interior in Venice, 1899


These objections shouldn't be overstressed. Sargent painted pictures the way other people breathe. The amount of quality paintings that he produced in his lifetime is absolutely beyond compare, and when we encounter a picture that falls a little short, a picture that may not meet all our possibly biased criteria, we shouldn't judge it too harshly. It may be that he just had a headache that day (that hour?), and after all, we should be willing to permit the occasional misstep to an artist who, with only some brushes, paint, and canvas, could put together a body of work that, in his own time and down through the years, has made so many other artists feel, from the bottom of their hearts, bad.