John Singer Sargent
( Originally Published 1907 )
Jr is a perilous thing for contemporary criticism to express itself in ultimate terms. Jeffrey's " This will never do " stands as an historic reproof to cocksureness. Who knows anything of Bononcini to-day? Yet Byrom reflected contemporary opinion when he linked him with Handel in that jingle which has passed into the nursery:
Strange that such difference should be 'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
These things and history is strewn with similar examples should put a salutary restraint alike upon our appreciations and our depreciations. We should remember posterity, which does the winnowing itself and sets our judgment remorselessly aside. Who knows but that it may say that Mr. Yeats wore the mantle of Blake and that Mr. Hall Caine had a juster view of himself than you or I had? When, therefore, we say that we have lost the breed of great men, let us do so with reserve, and when we point to John Singer Sargent as an exception that proves the rule, let us add a rider to placate posterity. Let us agree with Mrs. Meynell that he is the sole heir of Velasquez; but let us qualify heir to his technical genius, but not heir to the nobility of his spirit.
There was probably never a painter who held a more undisputed position in the art of his own day than Mr. Sargent holds. Titian's supremacy was challenged by Veronese and Tintoret. Rubens and Rembrandt ran their course together, one living among princes and the other and greater dying in a garret. Velasquez was their contemporary, and in a sense the rival of Rubens. Reynolds and Gainsborough divided the crown. Turner, it is true, towered above his contemporaries in lonely splendour; but his greatness was never undisputed in his own day. Mr. Sargent has the field to himself. The Royal Academy has become a sort of background to his dazzling achievements. We hurry through the quadrangle with one thought in our minds. What has Sargent to show us? A few years ago a second question was just emerging What has Furse to show us? But that fine, chivalrous spirit vanished in the first pride of the morning, and the only possible challenge to Sargent vanished with him. It was the challenge of a nobler and simpler spirit. It was as though Handel had come to dispute the palm with Strauss, or gallant Gainsborough to bring back the old, happy English feeling into art.
Mr. Sargent does not appeal to us spiritually. He does not belong to us. He has the modern note of cosmopolitanism a thing almost as unattractive as the word that expresses it. He reflects a world that has lost the sense of nationality and does not know the meaning of home a world that lives in capitals, and flits from one palatial hotel to another. " D the fellow, how various he is! " said Reynolds of Gainsborough; but in all his variety he spoke of England—English lanes and English folk and English thought — just as Rembrandt translated even the Gospel story into Dutch terms and Velasquez breathed the spirit of Spain into every stroke of his brush. Mr. Sargent is various too, but it is a variousness that has no root either in himself or in us. He is a nomad. The son of American parents, born in Florence, trained in Paris, living in London, a citizen of the United States, speaking Italian, French, German, Spanish, almost as fluently as he speaks English, painting Jews for business and hot southern scenes for pleasure, he knows nothing of geographical or racial boundaries. Having all the earth as his artistic inheritance, he has no foot of ground that is peculiarly his own.
Nor is his art anchored in any abiding human purpose. Millet and Watts were technically as unattached to any given soil as he is; but they were each governed by a purpose greater than their art a purpose of which their art was only the instrument. They were prophets who chose, as it were, by accident, the medium of the brush instead of the pen. So with Velasquez and Rembrandt. Their appeal is primarily to the heart and after that to the aesthetic sense, Velasquez, it is true, tells us little of himself. He has the aloofness of Shakespeare. He reveals as the sun reveals, impartially, unemotionally, veraciously. He does not vitiate the statement of absolute truth by comment of his own. It is true that the essential nobility of his soul pervades all he does that in the grave, cool world he sees with so serene a vision even the clowns and the dwarfs are gentlemen. There is nothing mean, nothing for scorn. His water-carrier, painted when he was nineteen, has the dignity which is older than Courts, the dignity which belongs to nature and the sorrows of the earth. He sees the cunning that lurks behind the feline gaze of Innocent X. and puts it down with unerring truth; but he adds no note of his own. He does not criticise: he states. He had, as Mr. Clausen has said, " the surest eye and the truest hand of any artist that ever lived." He had also, with the possible exception of Durer, the most truthful mind.
There is truth also in Rembrandt; but it is the truth not so much of objective vision as of subjective emotion. He is the painter of his own soul, the most intense, the most personal of dramatists. We admire Velasquez as we admire Shakespeare for his all-comprehending vision; but we love Rembrandt as we love those who have taken us into the inner sanctuary of themselves, or as Desdemona Ioved Othello, for the perils he had passed. In short, the enduring hold of Velasquez and Rembrandt upon the world is less through their technical genius than through their human sympathies. In each case the artist was less than the man.
Now Mr. Sargent is the artist sans phrase the most accomplished artist of our time, one of the most accomplished artists of all time. He is an artist like Rubens, rejoicing in his incomparable dexterity. He has a hand light as a cloud, a touch swift as the lightning. His pictures affect you " like a melody that's sweetly played in tune." He is the virtuoso, in love with his instrument, delighting in the effects he can extract from it, careless of everything except his astonishing art. Sometimes, as in the Mountain of Moab," the more intimate of the portraits and his great decorations at Boston, there are hints of something that goes deeper. But in general he takes his subject as a theme, not as Beethoven took it, to sound the deeps, but as Liszt took it, for rhetorical display. The analogy of music is inevitable in speaking of him, for his art has the mobility and rhythm of the orchestra. He fulfils the injunction .of Sir Toby Belch, " Thou shouldst go to church in a gal-liard and come home in a coranto. Thy very walk should be a jig." Max Beerbohm's caricature of him expresses the essential spirit of his work. He is seen leaping at his canvas with a brush in either hand, while the fiddlers in the foreground scrape a tempestuous accompaniment. Nor is the analogy merely intellectual. Music is among the many accomplishments of this versatile man, as it was of that other Admirable Crichton, Lord Leighton. His recreation is the piano, and there are few more constant figures at the opera than his.
His facility of execution is astonishing. He has this quality in common with Gainsborough and Hals, that he seems to see the vision as a whole and to transmit it to the canvas with all its instancy and freshness and momentary delight. Take the incomparable portrait of " Lord Ribblesdale," or that audacious rendering of the Misses Wertheimer." They are seen with the instancy of the camera and rendered with the pulse of life that the camera cannot give. It is as if the vision and the accomplishment were one action. Partly this is due to his enormous capacity for sustained labour. He can paint a portrait at a sitting and he can work on a canvas for six hours without loss of his wonderful vivacity and energy of mind. But this facility is rooted in the capacity for taking infinite pains. I am told that in the case of that dramatic " A Vele Gonfie," he went over most of the canvas twenty separate times, though the swift, untroubled brush strokes left no sense of labour, but rather of a careless improvisation. One remembers the historic reply of Whistler, " And do I understand, Mr. Whistler, that you ask £200 for knocking off this this little thing? " " No, I ask zoo for the experience of a lifetime." There is the experience of a lifetime in those broad, confident sweeps of Sargent's brush. That is what is overlooked by his imitators, who copy his methods with-out his knowledge and achieve only that flashy cleverness that is the most desolating thing in art.
Nor is his intellectual insight less remarkable than his technical dexterity. He seizes his subject in all its qualities, body, mind and spirit, and communicates the result pleasant or unpleasant: he is indifferent in one startling unity, so that it is as if you knew these people, the tones of their voice, the quality of their thought, their origin and their career. It would not, I think, be difficult to write a character sketch of the Wertheimers simply by studying Sargent's portraits. Take as an example of this faculty of reflecting the spirit in externals, the portrait of President Roosevelt, with its sense of power cunningly realised by such devices as the outstretched right hand, muscular and exaggerated, that grasps the support as if it were the great globe itself that he held in his iron grip. There is a legend that a doctor puzzled by a certain case found the secret that he could not diagnose in the patient himself revealed in a portrait of the patient by Sargent. True or untrue, it is not difficult to believe, so searching is his vision. This swift instinct for the individual note in character, coupled with his rapidity of work, is illustrated by his portrait of Mr. Pulitzer. The famous New York journalist had been to his studio several times and his picture was approaching completion. But one day, on arriving at Mr. Sargent's door, he found awaiting him on the pavement a certain peer who had sought some favour which he was not disposed to give. "I cannot stay: I am due in the studio," he said. The other thereupon coolly proposed to accompany him. Mr. Pulitzer blazed with wrath at the suggested intrusion and when he entered the studio his face was still transfigured with passion. "That's what I want," said the painter, as he saw the face of the real man at last, and turning to the canvas he obliterated the previous work and with swift energy and broad strokes put down in one brief sitting that brilliant impression of Mr. Pulitzer which is now in New York.
He is, more than any great portraitist on record, a satirist. Velasquez painted mean people and made them great. He painted great people and sometimes made them ignoble. But he never expressed his own contempt, for he had none. Mr. Sargent's palette has usually a little acid in it. The note of scorn is subtle but indisputable. Mr. Dooley expressed a truth with his delightful extravagance when he told how Mr. Higbie of Chicago got his portrait painted by Sargent:
Number 108 shows Sargent at his best. There is the same marvellous ticknick that th' great master displayed in his cillybrated take-off on Mrs. in last year's gallery. Th' skill an' ease with which th' painter has made a monkey iv his victim are beyond praise. Sargent has torn th' sordid heart out iv th' wicked crather an' exposed it to the wurruld. Tb' wicked, ugly little eyes, th' crooked nose, th' huge graspin' hands, tell th' story iv this miscreant's character as completely as if they were written in so many wurruds, while th' artist, with wonderful malice, has painted onto th' face a smile iv sickenin' sill-complacency that is positively disgustin'. No artist iv our day has succeeded so well in showin' up th' maneness iv th' people he has mugged. We ondershtand that th' atrocious Higbie paid wan hundherd thousan' dollars for this comic valentine. It is worth th' money to ivrybody but him.
It is in his portraits of children, and occasionally in those of old age, that we find the note of human sympathy which is generally wanting. Here some-times the heart as well as the intellect is engaged. There are few things more fresh and appealing than the Boit children or little Laura Lister. Greuze had no finer instinct for unsullied innocence.
But it is as the artist that Sargent will live. The man will remain obscure behind the achievement that astonishes and delights the mind, but leaves the sympathies cold. His conception of the province of art is the antithesis of that of Burne-Jones, to whom a picture was a spiritual stimulus, a vision and an ideal, lit by a light that never was on sea or land, " the consecration and the poet's dream." It is not a view of life, nor is it a revelation of self. It has nothing to do with morals or emotions. It is art for art's sake, a thing self-contained and apart from the personal life of the artist. It remains to be seen in his case as in Whistler's how far that divorce is consistent with his inclusion by posterity among those whom it calls " great." Two things are certain. One is that if the technical mastery of the medium constitutes greatness, John S. Sargent is among the immortals. The other is that it is through his eyes that the future will see our time in its ornamental aspects, just as to-day we see the eighteenth century through the eyes of Gainsborough and Reynolds. The one person the future will not see will be Mr. Sargent himself. He will be for ever inscrutable not a man but a technique.