Magazine article The Spectator

Was Sargent the Greatest Painter of the Twentieth Century?

Magazine article The Spectator

Was Sargent the Greatest Painter of the Twentieth Century?

Article excerpt

Some critics have been sneering at the Tate's Sargent exhibition, but that tells us more about the critics than about Sargent. The show is crowded with painters, professional and amateur, peering intently at the miracles he achieved by a huge natural talent endlessly refined and improved by studying the masters and by sheer hard work. I am always learning from Sargent, having a large collection of books about him, but the reproductions, while often of the highest quality, are no substitute for the originals - they heighten the colours and I have been to see this collection three times already. Sargent is one of the few painters I study who fills me not with despairing envy but with ardent hope, and my reaction to looking hard at his work is to rush back to my studio and start painting. I look on him as a genial mentor, a friend almost, who speaks words of encouragement to me through his brushstrokes and washes.

Why was Sargent a great painter? First, like all the finest creative artists, Sargent was obsessed by the beauty of truth. As Keats says, beauty and truth are the same, but it takes imaginative perception and professional skills to bring this out. The most instructive work in the entire show is an early one, of an unadorned white staircase in Capri, which Sargent painted with infinite care and observation in 1878, when he was 22. The command of space is absolute. It is evident that Sargent taught himself everything the Cubists knew, but 30 years earlier, and he conveyed all the pleasures of abstraction without moving one millimetre away from nature. This simple staircase has no ornamental features whatever, but Sargent's exact truth-telling about its sunlight and shadows produces a picture of overwhelming beauty.

As it happens, the canvas in this show which I would like to possess even more than the staircase is Sargent's brilliant oil sketch of his friend Paul Helleu painting in the rushes by the river Avon in 1889. I call this work `The Hand' because that is what it is about - the long, bony, sensitive fingers of Helleu's right maniple, as it adds the final touch to his sketch. You can feel the tension in his face but you cannot see it because it is concealed by his straw hat, and the only face you do see is the sullen, discontented one of his chilled wife waiting impatiently by his side for him to finish. Sargent painted hands better than anyone else ever, as you can see from the elongated tendrils of Robert Louis Stevenson, which convey the ravages of his TB even more dramatically than the strained anxiety of his face. Often indeed Sargent penetrates beneath the skin of his sitters' hands to reveal the biological architecture beneath: in the full-length portrait of the Duchess of Portland (1902) you can almost feel the blood pulsing in her veins, and the sadness of Mrs Charles Russell (1900) is revealed as much in her trembling left hand as in her tear-red eyes. This masterly portrait, which even Velazquez would have envied, has some painting of a transparent pearl-grey silk dress with a rose-satin underlay which is pure magic.

The second reason Sargent was a great painter is that he could animate the inanimate without any sacrifice of truth. Mrs Russell's exquisite dress protests loudly at the empty tragedy of her life. Asher Wertheimer's cigar tells us, `The man smoking me is not just crafty, he is selfindulgent too', and the magnificent long overcoat encasing the young Graham Robertson is obviously far more important than the little twerp inside it and is the real subject of the painting. …

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