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Excerpt from: John Singer Sargent

Prologue: Point of View

A work of art, a flourish of manners, even "the faintest hints of life" could strike Henry James with the force of "revelation." He always stood ready to be impressed, though his standards were so high he was often let down. James was a connoisseur of disappointment, but only reluctantly; when he found reason to hope, he celebrated. Of John Singer Sargents Lady with a Rose, 1882 (plate 90), he wrote: "it offers the slightly uncanny spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. It is not simply precosity in the guise of maturity--a phenomenon we very often meet, which deceives us only for an hour; it is the freshness of youth combined with the artistic experience, really felt and assimilated, of generations. . . ."

James had no difficulty seeking out this new talent, for the world of expatriate Americans was heavily populated but tightly knit. James and Sargent met in Paris, sometime during the early 1880s. In a letter to his friend Grace Norton, James said: "The only Franco-American product of importance here strikes me as young John Sargent the painter, who has high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilized to his finger-tips. He is perhaps spoilable--though I dont think he is spoiled. But I hope not, for I like him extremely; and the best of his work seems to me to have in it something exquisite."

Two years after Sargents critical triumph at the Salon of 1882 with his Lady with a Rose, he sent only one picture to the Salon--his notorious Madame X (plate 120). The subject is Virginie Avegno Gautreau, in a haughty pose and a black dress with a deep décolletage. This image was so deeply offensive to Salon-goers that when Sargent left in June for a holiday in England, his Parisian career was in jeopardy.

Sargent had been preceded in London by Henry James, who immediately arranged a series of studio visits. The main stop on their tour was the studio of Edward Burne-Jones, then the leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 he had been "quite the lion of the occasion," according to James, who ranked him "at the head of the English painters of our day." Now, seven years later, Sargent and James saw Burne-Joness King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (plate 3), his latest venture into the grand genre of history painting. Its subject, out of Elizabethan balladry by way of Tennyson, is that of a worldly ruler daunted by a superior spirit. The king has given his throne to the beggar maid, who consents to sit there but will not accept his crown. It was his "finest thing," according to Henry James--"very beautiful and interesting."

Sargent liked it too, though, James continued, "I am afraid poor, dear, lovely, but slightly narrow B.J. suffers from a constitutional incapacity to appreciate Sargents [paintings]--finding in them such a want of finish." The younger artists elliptical manner was anathema to the Pre-Raphaelites, whose obsessive attention to detail inspired John Ruskin to praise them for "rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." Ruskin exaggerates, of course--every painters image results from selection. Yet Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the rest of the Brotherhood did attempt to make their art all inclusive, if only in the implications generated by an intricate machinery of symbols. By contrast, Sargents style, like his way of life, was an unremitting process of selection and dismissal. He accepted nothing, in art or the world, that failed to please his relentlessly elegant eye. He rejected much. For all his generous appreciation of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Sargent did not let it affect his own work.

Still, Sargent always got along well with the Pre-Raphaelite "lion," who was at the height of his career when the two met. Burne-Jones had even begun to receive portrait commissions--an odd development, considering that all his subjects, observed or imaginary, have the heavy jaw and lidded eyes of the ideal type he learned from Rossetti. Burne-Jones, for his part, liked Sargent. It wasnt so much an attraction of opposites as a kindly feeling between two cultivated individuals whose aesthetics belonged to incompatible worlds. Their differences were more than a question of meticulous finish versus painterly bravura. Burne-Joness childhood, by his own testimony, had been a time of ugliness and deprivation. By the time Rossetti initiated him into art he was well into his twenties. Sargent had grown up in Florence, surrounded by artifacts of the Renaissance and encouraged to draw and play the piano by a mother who painted in watercolor herself. Sargents best landscapes blend immediate observation with gracefully theatrical perspectives, while Burnes-Joness subjects direct the imagination to an otherworldly realm of idealized forms and transcendent symbols. King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid poses questions about the social and economic order; Sargent never for a moment doubted the fitness of that order.

During the late 1870s Burne-Jones took an active part in the pro-democracy, anti-imperialism politics of Englands Liberal party. Opposed by Disraeli, the Liberals faded. Burne-Jones withdrew to his studio, yet he always considered his art a higher form of political expression. Sargent was so indifferent to politics that his first thought, on hearing about the outbreak of World War I, was that he and some of his friends, caught behind unfriendly borders, were going to suffer passport difficulties. Sargents view of the war deepened, of course. When a niece was killed during the shelling of a church, he felt a sadness that may never have left him. In 1918 he volunteered for duty as an official war artist, producing pictures of trenches and ruined French towns that are convincingly grim. Still, Sargent doesnt seem to have felt the horror, the doubt about the very premises of Western civilization, that afflicted Henry James during the war years.

Though he played significant variations on the radical styles of Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, Sargent never stood wholeheartedly with the modernists. Modernism challenges a faith that he always preserved, and that faith reached beyond art to affect his attitudes about society. Though the Sargent family was not rich by the standards of the Victorian plutocracy, his mother and father had enough money between them to maintain a respectable front in their travels through Italy, Switzerland, and France. Raised amid servants, Sargent took no notice of the poor who so disturbed a democrat and idealist like Burne-Jones. When peasants and workers appear in Sargents art, they belong to the scenery. By the turn of the century, he had found a way to adapt the tradition of Joshua Reynolds to an age of railroad magnates and newspaper tycoons.

Within a decade of Sargents visit to his studio, Burne-Jones came to realize that his career was slipping. Portrait commissions were fewer, and his large, still fervent scenes from mythology and the Bible were no longer selling. And he knew why--that is, he knew which London painter had replaced him at the apex of the pyramid: John Singer Sargent. Yet up until the time of his death in 1898, Burne-Jones felt kindly toward the younger artist. So, it seems, did everyone who knew him. To be "civilized to his finger-tips" was, in Sargents case, to be the very image of a likable man.

In the eyes of an immense public, Sargent stood for artistic greatness. By the turn of the century, he had eclipsed every painter in the English-speaking world--including John Everett Millais, Frederick Leighton, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, all of them knighted, all of them admired, but none so much in demand as Sargent. In 1901 he was asked to paint the coronation portrait of Edward VII. Sargent declined, with the astonishingly modest explanation that his reliance on "nature" left him "particularly unfit for this high task." Six years later the king offered him a knighthood. Sargent declined this honor as well. To have accepted would have meant giving up his American citizenship, and even though Sargent was never tempted to settle in the United States, he held the country in high, patriotic regard. Nonetheless, his deepest allegiance was to that borderless realm of refinement where he and his friend Henry James were leading citizens.

James was orotund and, from time to time, oracular. According to Sargents friend and biographer, Evan Charteris, the painter was very different. Of their first meeting, he reported that Sargent talked "slower and with more difficulty in finding words than anyone I have ever met. When he cant finish a sentence he waves his fingers before his face as a sort of signal for the conversation to go on without him. . . ." As Charteris got to know Sargent better, this first impression changed: "His conversation was never fluent but, like his painting, it could be immensely descriptive. He wasted no words--it may even be doubted if he had any to waste--but those he used were like strokes of his brush, significant and suggestive; indeed, he could convey a weight of meaning by a gesture or a truncated phrase." In company or at his writing desk, Jamess drawn-out, elusive phrases precipitated meaning at a rate so slow as to be, on occasion, excruciating. Sargent made his points with quick ellipses. On canvas, the wry hesitancies of his verbal style became a flurry of grand and sweeping suggestions about appearance, about character, about the nature of art.

At an exhibition of Sargents work, James is supposed to have said, "In seeing these pictures . . . I feel that I am such a poor painter"--a remark premised on Jamess belief that novelists and painters pursue the same goal in different mediums. This anecdote may well be apocryphal, yet James had reason to envy the speed and sureness with which his friends images made their large impact and, at the same time, conveyed the most delicate nuances. Sargent had little to say on these subjects. John C. Van Dyke, a critic and historian, wrote in 1919 that Sargent "is not a poet in paint, nor does he indulge in sentiment, feeling or emotion. He records the fact. If I apprehend him rightly, such theory of art as he possesses is founded in observation. One night in Gibraltar some fifteen years ago I was dining with him at the old Cecil Hotel. We had been on ship for a dozen days and were glad to get on shore. That night, as a very unusual thing, Sargent talked about painting--talked of his own volition. He suggested a theory of art in a single sentence: You see things that way (pointing slightly to the left) and I see them this way (pointing slightly to the right). He seemed to think that would account for the variation or peculiarity of each eye or mind. . . . Such a theory would place him in measured agreement with Henry James, whose definition of art has been quoted many times: Art is a point of view, and genius a way of looking at things. But whether Sargent has followed James, or James followed Sargent, in that definition, I am not able to record."

"As the eye, such the object," William Blake had said much earlier. The Romantics believed that the truth of appearances is created by an enlightened vision. This article of aesthetic faith led to the art of such Victorian visionaries as Burne-Jones. The same faith echoes, however faintly, in that one-sentence "theory of art" with which Sargent staked his claim to the particularity of his point of view. Blake wrote his comment in the margin of Joshua Reynoldss Discourses, in defiance of the Augustan decorum that required individuality to submit to the generalizations of a grand, Neoclassical manner. Sargent learned from that manner--indeed, he brought it into the twentieth century. In his formal portraits as well as in his ideas about painting there is a clash of Romantic and Neoclassical heritages. The conflict is just as sharp in Henry Jamess case. In Jamess novels each self, including his own, must be glimpsed through the ambiguities that the authors vision generates as it goes about the creation of its world. Likewise, Sargent encourages in us the sense that selves are fictions to be refined, perhaps reinvented, by art. Neither James nor Sargent holds out the hope of Blake--and Burne-Jones--that artist and audience can make direct contact with one another. The works of art that draw us together are also barricades that permit intimations and little else to cross from one sensibility to the next. This is an aesthetic of insinuation, and of course the novelists use of it was very different from the painters. Meaning in Jamess prose is subtle to the point of evanescence, while Sargents large formal portraits came to dominate the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy with their theatrical flair. Still, even his most spectacular canvases play nuance against the simple notation of fact. For all the luminosity of his style, Sargent never fails to let it be understood that much of the self, his own and the sitters, remains in shadow.

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