Biography John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent • (1856-1925)
By Teej Weems
To describe John Singer Sargent as a "brilliant" or "splendid" or "great" artist is almost trite and pandering. Many have used adjectives such as these to excess in much the way that overemotional women use tears, or fickle lovers say "I love you." The man, and his work deserve more than overused hyperbole that seems to gush from viewers from a lack of knowledge or understanding of what it is that is being viewed. The aforementioned reaction is simpler than the reading or thought needed to avoid the knee-jerk responses that seem the social equivalent to an "excuse me" or "bless you." Which is to say, they have very little meaning except that they are trying very hard to be polite, when they really don't know in the least what's going on in the painting. This attitude marks the well-meaning but uninformed onlooker to most certainly miss not only the layers to Sargent's paintings, but of Sargent himself.
As in any other profession, artists have phases through which proficiency with their medium, or lack thereof, develops. Among the influences which direct the course of the artist's work is his own personal circumstances, particular culture and belief system, the politics of the day and, perhaps, as was in Sargent's case, genius. If only the progression of the type of paintings of Sargent are considered, the man can look fragmented and almost schizoid in the perplexing array of watercolors, dark and somber realistic paintings and elegant portraitures. At first glance there seems to be no continuity to his work and no reason why the deeply moving street scenes he first painted in France were replaced by the elegant, if flattering portraitures he produced in England.
Sadly, it has become politically correct in art circles to first "ooh" and "aah" over Sargent's work and then declaim it in the same breath. Reviewers of the major exhibits of Sargent and newspaper reporters which cover these exhibits begin by exclaiming that he was brilliant in the painting of El Jaleo or Lady with the Rose or another of his paintings which are termed high art, and then accuse him of compromising this brilliance by "wasting" it with mere portraits of the rich and famous of his time.
This attitude is stunningly shortsighted in that it does not take into consideration the artist's intent during the course of his lifetime. John Singer Sargent is on par with Homer, Tadema, Goya, and O'Keefe in that each of these artists found his or her own voice and unique vision and was able to translate this on canvas to an extremely high level of proficiency. He painted what he wished to paint and he did it well, that he painted in several different venues and excelled in all of them is to his credit. It is humorous to find those "in the know" about art turning up their nose at a man because he painted the elite upper class of his day. The current society of today seems to be able to only marginally abide financial and social success, yet when coupled with genius it seems the press in general and the intelligentsia in particular balk (witness Georgia O'Keefe who was derided as an opportunist for marrying Stieglitz and given rough treatment by the press).
Besides the fact that Sargent was successful financially from his portraiture (horror of horrors), the most common complaint in regard to this period is that the subjects look artificial, plastic, and posed. Very true. This is part of the genius that is Sargent. He painted what was the culture of his time and with it he captured the prattling, the posing and posturing, the shallowness of the elite. If he is no Van Dyke, perhaps it is because the society which Europe offered him as subjects were shallow and self-absorbed, and more interested in looking good than being good. Perhaps the genius of Sargent is that people paid him to do so. In brief, he captured the decay of Europe's upper class on canvas and many times those looking on what he left for us see shades that are distasteful. Viewers today wrongly blame the messenger instead of paying attention to the message he painted.
Perhaps part of what those reviewing Sargent are protesting is that his life was so exemplary. We can fault Sargent in that he did not give us much material with which to romanticize his life. Then perhaps those who write about art for a living would have filler material and not have to attack his portraiture quite so much. At the very least it would have helped if he had died in poverty by his own hand, half mad with the effects of syphillus as did Van Gogh. Or he could have been a womanizer as was Whistler who also on occasion took over another persons home and spent their purse. Perhaps we would have more sympathy for him had he died because he lost his love and took his own life as did Maurycy Gottlieb. Instead, he continued most of his life in favor, living quietly, not fathering bastard children, womanizing, stealing from his clients or making scandals, but instead meeting and painting high society, heads of state and presidents of countries.
It seems very easy to find the means to have sympathy with these fellows who produced awe-inspiring and incredible art, but were in one or more areas of their life empty or deficient, or just flat out dishonest. But what to do with a man who exemplified the culture and expectations of his time? Without review and comparison the culture and politics of our time insures that we not understand the culture and politics of his. At the moment Sargent was born, the States were marking off sides in tarriff issues which thundered into Civil War when Lincoln ascended into office. Churchill would be born at the end of this century to rescue England and Europe during the Second World War. Freud and Darwin would change both the mental and spiritual landscape of the world and the church would never recover fully. He would live during the advent of aviation and World War I. Under his gaze England would begin her descent from her height with him recording the beginning of that long fall. America would go through a resocialization and survive a depression from the after-affects of the Civil war followed by the beginning of the industrial revolution. The Great Depression was yet to be and Sargent would be dead when the stock market plummeted to the bottom. During Sargent's lifetime the art world would be left reeling as impressionism, surrealism, modernism, abstrationism, cubism, Faunism, and a few more left out "ism's" exploded on the art landscape.
Sargent's beginnings were as unconventional as his work and life were stolid and stable. His mother, who quietly disdained the culture and society in the States convinced Sargent's father to move to Europe for her health's sake. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy and was nurtured in the cul de sacs of small European towns where he was educated by his father in an open and relaxed manner. His mother encouraged him to take lessons by observing the life that surrounded him in those same small towns and villages and as one method of doing so, introduced him to sketching. Europe at this time was at its apex. In England it was said that the sun never set on the Union Jack and France was a hotbed for up and coming artists. It was a man's world, where the class into which you were born made for opportunities that were otherwise not available, and those places went to the best, brightest and wealthiest. One could never have enough friends in influential places or enough money.
Sargent was fortunate enough to have amassed some of these sorts of acquaintances through his parents. In 1884 Sargent moved to Paris to study art in the atelier of Carolus-Duran. At that time, Carolus-Duran was regarded as a progressive modernist. The hero of his school was Velazquez who was seen as one of the great masters with his grandeur and gravity. Sargent took his schooling quite seriously and practiced at using Velazquez' techniques with light and darkness. Whether Sargent's ambition was to be accepted into higher society at this time is not known, but he was determined to have something every year to submit to the Salon for exhibition. In 1878 he won a second class metal for "Oyster Gatherers of Cancale." His popularity after this rose to such an extent that he was able to set up a private studio and receive commissions. One of his first patrons was Mr. Edward Pailleron who commissioned Sargent to paint his wife. He entered this portrait of Madame Pailleron at the 1880 Salon where he received much acclaim for the portrait. During these years Sargent developed his style and outlook both in regards to himself, as well as his patrons. His underlying opinion of both art and subject (and his attitude toward both) first publicly revealed itself in the 1884 Salon with his portrait of Madame Gautreau, also known as Madame X. The public went savage against Sargent, accusing him of scandalizing society. When the work was in progress Sargent confided to a friend that he dismayed of ever being able to capture on canvas accurately Madame X and was "struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame G." Later, reviewer D.S. McColl derided Sargent as having a "cold accusing eye bent on the world." Though this review was not specific to the Madame X portrait, it was general to all Sargent's work. Probably few, if any others, saw Sargent's disdain for the shallow softness of the upper class as did McColl. Even so, it is arguable if McColl could put a name to that which Sargent so subtly exposed.
Copyright ©1999-2005 Teej Weems. All rights reserved.