Fresh from art school three decades ago, I wrote a letter to American Heritage magazine protesting a review of a Whitney Museum retrospective of John Singer Sargent that designated him the greatest American portrait painter. I could have dissented on a technicality—Sargent was less American than he was European. And I suppose that was part of my point, insofar as Thomas Eakins was far more the salt of native soil. Until the Whitney show, Sargent had been critically dismissed for much of the twentieth century as a glib expatriate; in the years since, his ascent has been unabated. I witnessed the moment of a sea change, with some trepidation. The editors of American Heritage published my letter, cutely entitling it “No Time for Sargent.”
With age I’ve come to increasingly appreciate the vibrant pluralism of American figurative painting. If everyone painted with the probing sobriety of Eakins—pretty much what I demanded back then—the museums would be drearily earnest.
Nonetheless, earnestness is a trait Sargent often forsook in favor of virtuosity. Make no mistake, his gifts were of the highest order, but they’re presented self-consciously. The necessity to impress patrons tinges everything Sargent painted; ever the master of prestidigitation, even in his relaxed moments he is a thoroughly public artist. No other major painter’s manual dexterity is so central to his identity.
With these reservations as prelude, what positive notes does the current show at the Met offer? Many, as it happens. One can fault Sargent for being a performer, and still marvel at the performance. But he’s at his best when genuine feeling comes through.
Even the marquee paintings in the first gallery are, for the most part, expertly crafted advertisements for the young artist’s ambitions as a portraitist. In the second gallery an increasingly confident Sargent comes into his own. Aside from the Stevenson portraits, which reveal Sargent’s gift, when summoned, for psychological subtlety, the room is owned by lilies: the flowers in his large sketch of the Vickers children are breathtakingly drawn, and the portrait of Lily Millet, the wife of a fellow artist, is as directly personal and affectionate a response as the artist allowed. Sargent is said to have repainted it a half dozen times; the exhibition is worth seeing for her alone.
Some of Sargent’s greatest portraits, each of them hitting a different note, are in the third gallery. In rapid succession: La Carmencita, a commanding depiction of the dancer’s insolence; W. Graham Robertson, a sympathetic study of a fey dandy; Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, one of Sargent’s most engaging paintings in the grand tradition; Eleonora Duse, a master class in the premier coup method of beginning a portrait head, wet into wet; Henry James, whose attitude reciprocates the artist’s keen appraisal; and the Portrait of George Henschel, as ethereal as James is solid.
The full-length portrait of Edwin Booth in the fourth gallery exemplifies the pros and cons of Sargent’s fondness for the theatrical—a comparison with Eakins’s The Thinker, in the Met’s American wing, reveals the latter to have better channeled the poignancy of Velázquez. A more successful sample of Sargent’s mature swagger is Mrs. Boit, who despite her disquieting squint, shows how far Sargent had come in the few years since the conscientiousness of his early portraits. The performative brio that was sometimes his undoing was also his most natural mode of expression.
A gallery devoted to the artist’s European travels yields several gems. Both The Sketchers and The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, are marvelous open air compositions, their rough surfaces indicating they were painted over previous efforts. Group with Parasols is a triumph of dappled light and slashing brushwork. As a bonus, the Met has added a gallery of its Sargent watercolors and drawings. Unfortunately, the museum has also tacked on an embarrassing sales room promoting smocks, plein air tools, and straw hats, complete with an appropriately dressed pitchman. Sargent, finely tuned to the flow of commerce, would have blanched at the gaucherie.
In total, the show is uneven, though the lesser oils and charcoal sketches will undoubtedly awe the faithful. I suspect that some of Sargent’s fans willingly conflate his skill with his worldly success. When Henry James pronounced him “civilized to his fingertips,” it was code for “plays well with wealth.” Hard-wired into his painting is an ambitiousness that rivals that of his most regal subjects. Sargent’s work is nothing if not material; the stuff of paint, applied with flamboyance, becomes synonymous with the luxuriant apparel his models wore and upon which they reclined. I also suspect it’s no coincidence that his stock began to soar during the mid-80s, as the country took a conservative turn. In a culture that reflexively makes money the measure of all things, and where the line between what is public and what is private has become virtually indistinct, my reservations sound both esoteric and quaint. Maybe Sargent’s reputation will prove vulnerable when the climate turns chilly for plutocrats, but I doubt it. At this point he looks pretty bulletproof.
That’s fine, so long as we stop to distinguish his top-shelf work from the merely clever. The current show throws together a bit of both. Sargent’s masterworks marry style and substance, and reside longer in the heart than does the icy elegance of Madame X.
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends continues through October 4, 2015.