Bringing Europe to England

By Blow, Simon | The Spectator, October 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Bringing Europe to England


Blow, Simon, The Spectator


John Singer Sargent must have contributed to Henry James's imagination. He was ideal James material. Sargent, a New Englander born in Florence of itinerant parents, who turned their back on America so as not to miss `the train of life' in Europe, was everything that Henry James looked for. No surprise that James should have tracked him down and befriended him. The two men met in Paris, where James, Sargent's senior by ten years, first saw the artist's work. `The only FrancoAmerican of importance here strikes me as young John Singer Sargent, the painter, who has high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilised to his finger tips,' James declared.

Sargent had already exhibited and at that time, 1884, a controversy was about to break in Paris over his now celebrated and admired portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau (`Madame X'). The characteristics of this young girl of 23, who was renowned for her use of white powder to further whiten a pale complexion, and for her eccentric chiselled features, were fully brought home in Sargent's image of her. The French critics attacked Sargent. The painting was denounced. Virginie's mother burst into his studio. `Ma fille est perdue,' she cried, `tout Paris se moque d'elle. Mon genre sera force de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin.'

It was now that Henry James counselled his friend to settle in London. Paris, James felt, had taught him all it could. For a while Sargent hesitated - his whole experience was Paris, he was entirely French taught. And then Sargent moved to London. Tite Street in Chelsea was to be his home for the rest of his life. There was only one problem. He wasn't at all English in his style of painting. England was still dominated by the PreRaphaelites, but here was a man who ignored detail, so essential to them. Sargent was to tell a student, `Do not concentrate so much on the features. Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple.' Whereas Sargent was generous in his appreciation of this English school, they didn't care for him. Burne-Jones found in Sargent `such a want of finish'.

It is extraordinary that Sargent not only completely overcame these reservations but in no time became the portraitist that everyone wanted. The English, and in particular the upper class, came to appreciate his highly individual evocative strokes that dramatised the subject by light and colour, a style he had developed in France. They quite forgot that frogs and wogs began at Dover, and he received commission after commission. Some, like the characterful Sir George Sitwell, thoroughly approved of the way Sargent executed a painting. For he didn't stand before the canvas carefully applying paint, but took great leaps and stabs at it, literally rushing from a distance. And often shouting, too. This, Sir George considered, was how an artist ought to work. For Sargent, this flying at the canvas was his method of not deadening with the precise, of giving his subjects life, panache and immediacy.

He was England's new van Dyck, although his spirit in paint was Velazquez. My great-great grandfather, the Hon. Percy Wyndham, whose house in Belgrave Square had been embellished by Frederic Leighton, asked Sargent - the antithesis of Leighton - to paint his three daughters. This painting of my great-grandmother, Pamela, sitting between her two sisters, was one of Sargent's largest portrait groups. The canvas measured lOft x 7ft, thereby suggesting the enormous space in which the aristocracy have to live. Sargent then was the man to paint them. …

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