Magazine article Artforum International

Sargent Major

Magazine article Artforum International

Sargent Major

Article excerpt

What are our chances of discovering yet another John Singer Sargent when, beginning this October, he'll be seen in full regalia on an Anglo-American museum tour to London, Washington, and Boston? Our century has created many different Sargents, befitting our own shifting tempers as well as the chameleon character of this slippery artist who is as predictable as he is surprising. Born in Florence in 1856 of well-to-do American expatriates, he lived and painted the Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, preparing his career in Paris as a student of the high-society portraitist Carolus-Duran, while skimming the most seductive surfaces off Monet's Impressionism. For our modernists, he was always beyond the pale, and his cosmopolitan fame made the British champion of Post-Impressionism, Roger Fry, hate him all the more for his easy virtuosity and his appalling deficiency in such newly discovered essentials as "significant form" and "plastic values." Painting as if Cezanne had never existed, Sargent was usually considered light-years away from serious art. What could be more damning than to be accepting commissions from John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson in 1917 when in fact the whole world, art included, was blowing up?

Sargent's transatlantic success was mainly based on his genius at revitalizing the endangered species of court portraiture (a feat later performed by Warhol, with the flash-bulb glamour of his who's who anthology of everyone from Leo Castelli to Queen Elizabeth). But if we squirm a bit on realizing that many of Sargent's ruthlessly nouveauriche sitters were hardly worthy of his old-master molds of fencing-master brushwork and haughty demeanor, then we might realize that not all of Van Dyck's or Gainsborough's sitters deserved the fancy portraits they got either. And with the late-twentieth-century's welling interest in both art history and portraiture, Sargent's fashion-plate canvases often become intellectual delights as museumworthy charades, a domino series of quotations in the tradition of Reynolds. (So it is that Sargent's group portrait of the Marlborough family updates Reynold's possibly grander version of their ancestors, which in turn looks back to the archetypal statement of British aristocracy's self-image, Van Dyck's Pembroke Family.)

Moreover, renewed interest in Sargent grows as he's seen more and more as part of a community of international society painters whose reputations, once buried, have been rising - the Italian Giovanni Boldini, for one, as well as others like the Swede Anders Zorn and the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla, both of whom, like Sargent, got commissions from American presidents. Of course, any painter whose fireworks of light-shot likenesses can be so instantly appealing is bound to raise eyebrows. Already in 1883, Oscar Wilde called Sargent's Pailleron Children "vicious and meretricious." Still, we would have to be blind not to respond with awe when confronting the four girls, ages four to fourteen, whom Sargent magically pinpointed in The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a flat-out masterpiece that grips the eye with its abrupt jumps from starched white pinafores to the shadowy voids of a Paris apartment. As for the psychological mystery of this child's-world view of adult privilege, Sargent's friend Henry James (whose portrait he painted) distilled it as "the sense it gives us of assimilated secrets."

Recent writing about Sargent has tried to uncover other kinds of "assimilated secrets," even though he claimed he could paint only what he saw, the veil rather than what lay beneath. …

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