John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent
Wow, that guy could paint!

This was essentially my response when I first encountered the work of John Singer Sargent back in my art school days.

I was disappointed, though, to find that the art history books treated him with less regard than I expected. “Facile”, “highly skilled” and “renowned portrait painter”, seemed to be the best they could say of him. I would read the discussions of the great painters and constantly be frustrated to find him not on the list. “Oh yeah”, seemed to be the consensus, “one of those late 19th Century painters who was all technique and no substance — not important in the grand scheme of things”.

I eventually figured out that the late 20th Century art establishment had a bug up its collective ass about 19th Century Academic art in particular, and that in a world where “flatness” was a pinnacle of achievement, and white on white conceptual abstracts painted on 12 foot canvasses with paint rollers were trading for millions of dollars, “facile” was a bad word; and that “substance” and “important in the grand scheme of things” meant “leading up to modernism”.

As I gained the knowledge and confidence to form my own opinions, and understand that the “experts” were often idiots, I realized that my initial impression of Sargent was a true one.

Of all of the great painters I have come to admire over the years, two are at the top of my list of personal favorites, Vermeer and Sargent.

The more I learn about painting itself, the higher my regard for Sargent becomes, and I consider him one of greatest painters in the history of Western art.

The art snob intellectuals will still turn up their nose at this, of course, but as the froth of modernism has receded in recent years, and some semblance of balance has returned to the art establishment, Sargent’s star has risen again.

He also gets knocked because he was a society portrait painter, which of course is a crime similar to engaging in “commercial art” or (horrors!), illustration. Sargent himself eventually got tired of his parade of rich sitters and the limitations of pleasing the upper class with pictures of themselves, but in the course of painting portraits, he was painting the visual world.

I have to admit that his paintings on the surface are not infused with great emotion or drama, he seems as unconnected to his sitters as those he painted in groups seem to each other. By accounts Sargent apparently did not have strong ties outside his family, but it is not in the emotional character of his faces and figures that I find the passion in Sargent’s work, it is in the painting itself.

If you approach Sargent’s portraits as “living still lifes” or “interior landscapes”, you may begin to see what I mean. Look at the folds in a dress, the way soft interior light bounces off valleys of satin, glowing with subtle but intense colors, like a misty Impressionist garden in the rain. Look at the textures of cloth, hair and skin; the rose colors where blood vessels are close to the surface in noses and cheeks; the sweep of light through dark interiors and the interplay of varied-colored brushstrokes, swaying back and forth with the rhythm of some distant symphony…

Here is Sargent’s passion, not found in his bored dilettante subjects, but in spite of them, in the act of painting itself. Yes, there is romance and drama in Sargent’s work, but it is less in his images than in his brushstrokes. If you go to look at Sargent’s oil paintings, get up close.

The painting above, Nonchaloir (“nonchalance”, sometimes titled as “Repose” – larger reproduction here), is a non-commissioined portrait of Sargent’s niece, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Even as family, her individuality is lost in his exploration of splashing light, rich, subtle color and the dance of his brush.

Sargent was considered an American painter, though he was born in Florence to American parents and spent most of his working life in Paris and London. He studied in the Paris atelier of the well known portrait painter Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran, and took drawing classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. (If you haven’t seen any of Sargent’s charcoal drawings, look them up. There is a nice inexpensive book of them from Dover Books, Sargent Portrait Drawings.)

Sargent took inspiration from Valázquez, the painter’s painter, and some of the wonderfully facile Baroque portrait painters like Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough; looking back to the inspiration of the past when the art world was beginning it’s mad, blind dash for the future. Even critics of the time began dismissing him as irrelevant.

He became tremendously successful as a portrait painter, though he scandalized the conservative art establishment with his notorious portrait of “Madame X“, (Madame Gautreau), a famous painting that he gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Sargent, like many of the so-called “American Impressionists” whose work I particularly enjoy, took influence form the French Impressionists. Sargent visited Monet at Giverny and associatied with others in the circle; but like the other “American Impressionists”, didn’t share the need the rebellious French painters felt to reject the traditional underpinnings of academic drawing and representational solidity, resulting in a wonderfully free blend of draftsmanship, color, and loose, painterly brushwork.

Sargent eventually abandoned his society portraits and devoted his later career to traveling and painting, largely in watercolor, a medium in which he was as stunningly accomplished and “facile’ as in oil. (See my previous post on Sargent in Venice.)

Happily, Sargent is in vogue these days and there are lots of great resources, both online and in print.

One of the best online resources for Sargent is the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. Though the organization is not as convenient as you might like, there is a great deal of information and lots of wonderful art to be found here.

Sargent’s resurgence of popularity has resulted in a number of fine books over the past several years. Here are some of the ones on my shelves:

John Singer Sargent by Kate F. Jennings is a good place to start, it’s absurdly inexpensive ($10) and this slim but oversize book is filled with large scale reproductions.

John Singer Sargent by Carter Ratcliff is large and informative (you may be able to find it less expensively used), and has some nice details, though some of them are in black and white (which can be instructive in itself).

John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother has a nice cross section of oils, watercolors and drawings, and the text is a good overview of the painter and his work.

John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, also by Trevor Fairbrother, is one of my favorites, and speaks, I think, to some of what I see in his passion for the visual world.

The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent by Carl Little is beautiful. No painter of representational watercolors should be unaware of it.

The best resource, though, if possible, is to see if there are works by Sargent in a museum near you, and put your nose up to one.

Whatever else you may say about John Singer Sargent, one thing is undeniable:

Wow, that guy could paint!

Addendum: Katherine Tyrell has assembled an amazing Squidoo lens of John Singer Sargent Resources.

It’s brimming with links to articles, bios, online galleries, Flickr photo sets, YouTube videos, Amazon book listings and descriptions, art galleries and museums, exhibition listings, portrait resources, geographical places associated with the artist, drawings and sketches, bookmarks, and blog posts; including several on her own excellent art blog, Making a Mark, on which she initiated a John Singer Sargent Project to call on her extensive circle of internet contacts to help assemble the material in the course of a month long study of the artist.

Along with the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, the most comprehensive resource on Sargent I’ve seen.

26 Replies to “John Singer Sargent”

  1. A very nice post Charley. And I agree Sargent is a brilliant painter.

    I’d like to suggest, however, that those who don’t rank Sargent at the very top of the list are not just folks painting white canvases with rollers. The knock on Sargent is that although he was a wonderful painter his paintings reveal little personality or even connection to his sitters. As you say yourself, he turned the subject into a living still life. We come away knowing more about their clothes and possesions than we do about their character or personalities.

    Even in the picture you’ve chosen here the face is incidental to the portrayal of silk and satin. Ultimately for viewers, if you’re painting people most of your career, this becomes a frustration. Fortunately for Sargent, the rich never figured that out and continued to line up on his waiting list.

    In this regard I suspect he’ll never rise farther in the estimation of historians than Frans Hals who, centuries earlier, was also brilliantly ‘facile’ (an adjective that is the epitome of damning praise.)

    Sargent himself recognized that he had no great affection for probing the personalities of his sitters and he gave it up as soon as he was financially able.

    Madame X carries a bit more probing than most of his portraits and the story of the strap on the gown is fascinating even for those who’ve already read or heard it.

    But the subject of children did not move Sargent much. And every portrait painter is touched by the personality of a child. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, in the Boston MFA is really an abstract composition that says more about the stubborn independence children exert than it is an examination of any of their personalities or characters.

    Just as Hals retains some of his glory but ultimately pales in comparison to Rembrandt’s exploration of the soul, the modern era has had people like Thomas Eakins or even today’s Nelson Shanks who I think outshine Sargent. We may be less dazzled by their brushwork and we may not even remember what kind of clothes the sitters wore, but we feel as if we’ve been exposed to something beyond the visual in the sitter’s personality.

  2. As a big contemporary art fan (we fund-raised all year for my school’s art club to go to all the modern/contemporary museums in NYC this year), I still love, love, LOVE John Singer Sargent. His compositions are always so wonderful that I can spot them right off the bat.
    one of the highlights on my NYC trip was seeing Madame X in person. I literally almost cried!
    I think he retains a pretty fair amount of depth in showing personality…but his compositions win me over every time.

  3. Thanks for the great article (and for the insightful articles i read avidly)

    I saw Sargent’s work for the first time some years ago, being marveled at the fact that he was oversighted, as you describe, a painter in the timeframe impressionism was blossoming in Europe.

    I was stunned at first at his great draftmanship, that in my eyes was very modern, with that care for the masses and the synthesis of the trait, very economical.

    later, i could visit an exibition of some of his works coupled with some of the spanish painter Sorolla, both master in the facility of the brushwork and of the light rendition.

    I loved Sorolla more, but the drawings in oil Sargent did in preparation of some large panel scene were so very sure and bold that reminded me of contemporary illustrators and comic artists, neither studies nor placeholders, real beautiful drawings that had pleasure for the eye per se, strong, declaring…
    the same goes with his watercolour scenes…
    A statement that good art, for a large part, trascend purposes and historical moments.

  4. I agree with you 100% Charley. The painting shown here is a perfect example of what makes Singer Sargent so great. The best at the human figure! I appreciate and envy the way he manipulates paint on canvas, the fluidity of his brushstrokes, especially in a difficult medium such as watercolor. The words fresh, alive, grand, achievement come to mind. I could get lost just looking at the folds of her dress and the beautiful rendering of her hands. I respond similarly to Cecilia Beaux’s work, which is also best viewed up close. Thanks for all the thoughtful information.

  5. Great post. I also greatly admire Sargent’s work. Although many of his portraits do seem more like still-life paintings, there are a few exceptions–Dr. Pozzi and Madame X come to mind immediately. In my opinion, Sargent’s noncommissioned works are his masterpieces, especially his Spanish Gypsy.

  6. Back in 2000 there was a large Sargent exhibit at the Nat’l Gallery of Art in DC. The lines to get in to see his work were huge. I worked just around the corner from the gallery, and saw the show 3 or 4 times during the middle of the week when the exhibit was not so packed. The man could paint indeed.

  7. Thank you so much for this post, and all the great links you put with it! I’ve been reding your blog for a while now and hadn’t sommented, but Sargent is my hands down favorite artist- I’d loved looking through books on him, but when an American Impressionist exhibit came through North Carolina and I went to see it they had three Sargents, and they were breathtaking! One of his nature scenes, looking the sunlight on a pool of water… from about six feet away it was breathtakingly realistic, but if you walked up close to it it was all brushstrokes and rich paint, you could barely make out the image! I went back so many times…

  8. great post. Sargent is one of my favorites. I do agree though with the criticism that his paintings do not evoke as strong an emotional response as those of the greatest artists. Many of his society paintings you can tell he didn’t care. However, this is part of why I love him – he was in such demand that he could get away with painting unflattering pictures of the rich and powerful – there is one lady where he painted her mustache. Hilarious.

    His earlier work is stronger and there are some truly great paintings – as mentioned – Madame X, the Bolt daughters, El Jaleo. I love everything he did in Venice. His portrait of Roosevelt is my favorite presidential portrait. Anytime I get to see his work in person it’s such a thrill, I could stare forever at his genius brushwork and perfect color selection. For me he is second only to Vermeer in his ability to pick the perfect color every time.

    I was in DC in 2000 when that exhibit came out and you are so right about the crowds. I think that is another reason why critics dismiss Sargent, because the masses love him.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    I was also fortunate enough to catch the exhibition in Washington (I made a point of it); a stunning show which pretty much cemented my high regard of Sargent. I spent a lot of time walking up and back, up and back, marveling at how his astonishingly free and painterly wisps, whorls and glorious chunks of paint resolved into representational images at a distance.

    The point I make about the emotion, or lack of it, in Sargent’s work; and its relevance in judging his stature as a painter, is that he is judged inappropriately on the basis of his subject matter.

    Because he is, in his portrait paintings, painting figuratively, he is set next to figurative painters like Rembrandt and Carrivaggio, against which his subjects are indeed lacking in emotion or drama.

    I say, however, that Sargent, even in his portrait work, is a landscape painter and should be judged against other landscape or still life painters. (This is why I suggest looking at his portraits as interior landscapes.)

    We don’t expect Monet to show us the emotion in the “face” of a haystack, yet his paintings of haystacks are undeniably emotional. The emotion and drama are in the paint, the color, and the relationship between the artist and the visual world.

    So it is, I think, with Sargent. In the image I’ve shown here, the focus, drama and visual excitement are not in the face of the sitter, but in her dress. Her face is only briefly (though superbly) indicated. The young woman, the presumed subject because it is a figurative painting, is only a part of the “landscape”, the overall visual dynamic, to which Sargent is responding with the poetry of his brush; a poetry that I believe puts him in the ranks of the greatest painters.

  10. I disagree about the lack of drama in his portraits. There certainly are portraits where he obviously didn’t care, but to me, he was a master of capturing the truth of the sitter. He painted many of his subjects as they were as much as possible, which reveals – at least in my opinion – a greater truth than paintings embellished to please the client, or paintings where the painter adds an ‘opinion’ of the sitter’s character to the painting. Because that exaggeration of a personality characteristic isn’t truth, it’s only the imagination of the painter, built on the little that he really knows about the subject. Rodin was similar with his sculptures: he let the models do their thing, and once they did something interesting, he went about it “like a mathematician, not a poet” (Rodin’s own words). The poetry of his sculptures comes from that same objectivity about the truth.

    To me, when you look at most portraits, you feel you are looking at a portrait. With Sargent, you feel like you are looking at a person, in a room, posing for a portrait. Which is a world of difference. That’s the quality that immediatly appealed to me about his work… not his brushwork, even though that is masterful as well.

    A normal portrait artist would paint a boy on a chair. Sargent paints a boy on a chair, absolutely bored, put there by his parents, not able to wait to get out of this whole thing.

  11. Very well said. It’s pleasant to hear someone who has a strong opinion and not so concerned about being politically correct. I am not a big fan of contemporary art – the only time I went to the contemporary art museum in Paris was to seek refuge from the rain one evening. My observation is many art schools are still favoring “white on white” vice teaching the technical expertise that makes academic art masters such as Sargent or Bouguereau the exceptional artists they are.

    Also Benjamin De Schrijver’s comment above regarding “looking at a person…posing for a portrait” offers a unique idea of Sargent’s work which I had not considered before.

  12. Thank you for the selection of books. I wanted to buy something about Sargent work and it will be a good beginning for me.

  13. I saw a PBS special last week on J.M.W. Turner and the times in which he painted, mid-1700’s to mid-1800’s, and they mentioned the hierarchy of subject matter that was promoted by the academies at the time.

    If I recall, it went something like, from top to bottom: historical painting, genre painting (scenes of daily life), portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. So portraits were literally of only middling importance, and I think these attitudes still pertained at the time Sargent was painting, and well into the 20th century. So in addition to taking hits for his “facility” he was working in a genre that was not respected. In a word, too commercial.

    Still he knocks me out! The sign of a great painter is not hiding your brush strokes, but making the viewer believe that your brush strokes are actually the object! Looks easy, but hard to pull off.

    That, and the nonchalant liveliness of his subjects brought about by his brush strokes, are what make him a great painter.

  14. I’m kicking myself that I missed this when you posted it.

    I love JSS – he’s a virtuso with a brush and I absolutely agree with you that essentially he’s a landscape painter – for me what he enjoys is painting light and colour. I’ve always taken the view that he did the portraits to pay the bills and what he really loved doing can be seen in all the watercolour sketches and landscapes.

    I think one of the points that is maybe underplayed in the commentary and comments is that Sargent is brilliant at composition and the arrangement of value shapes.

    I did a study of him in 2007 and that and all the references I found at the time plus links to various books about him can be found in the site I created to archive all the links – John Singer Sargent – Resources for Artists

  15. Wow, an amazing resource! Thanks, Katherine.

    Certainly better now than not at all. I’ve added an addendum to the post and put it on the list of links. A surprising number of people come on these posts after they’ve been published via search engines, so it will still be very useful (and I’ll certainly make use of it!).

  16. great post!

    Here I think he is respected. I certainly infinitely prefer him to the simpering of Bougereau :>)

    I love the painterliness, the loose marks and yet the keen observation underlying them. His compositions are superb as well and imaginative.

  17. has anyone seen a Sargent portrait of a young man. no mustache, cotton white shirt, holding a pipe. I have a charcoal sketch of this signed JSSargent, 1907, but can find nothing about it, or who it is. Thought it might be the son of a subject, but have seen few young men.

  18. This is a fantastic post- thanks for all the effort and links- I LOVE Sargent and the skill it takes to make a portrait look so effortless is incomparable…. I see this is from 2008, well it is alive and well on StumbleUpon and I look forward to checking out the rest of your site. Best wishes to you for 2012 and beyond

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