"The Van Dyck of his Age" - John Singer Sargent

14 April 1925, the “leading portrait painter of his generation”, Florence-born American John Singer Sargent, died in London at the age of 69.

“I don't dig beneath the surface for things that don't appear before my own eyes.“ (John Singer Sargent)

John Singer Sargent's portrait of the "Pailleron Children" (1880), looking like something out of Henry James' "Turn of the Screw"


It is all in the eye of the beholder, of course. A profile of a not yet quite sated bird of prey, a deathly pale skin that would not look out of place in a Bram Stoker novel, a dress too refined for a house of ill repute and too risqué for opening the social season even in Paris, a pose that is a breath before a Flamenco step, a gesture of indignation or an invitation to admire, in a chiaroscuro that highlights the flesh, slightly purple-tinted as it is. The full-length portrait is the peak of sophistication in a sophisticated age. Everyone immediately recognised “Madame X”, as the full-length portrait was labelled, it caused a scandal, the socialite’s mother demanded the piece to be withdrawn immediately while the lady herself was quite enchanted, no wonder, since the artist had captured “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau", like probably no one else could. However, he softened the impact a bit afterwards when he repainted the dress’ shoulder strap that had somehow come askew into a more presentable position. The harpies or sirens that carry the table supporting Madame X’s subtly seductive position remained bare-breasted, though. Like Hogarth, Sargent had an eye for details that could tell whole novels to the savants who are able to recognise them. And like some of the 20th century’s best movie directors, he had the ability to arrange props and visual side notes into a narrative that gave the seemingly snapshot-like arrangements of his famous portraits the depth of a third dimension. They presented a highly polished surface, as voluble, verbose even, as the narratives of his friend, the other American ex-pat Henry James, while the possible drama, that of an ending age actually, is hinted at in blanks. Such as his flirt with Impressionism in some of his backgrounds. Modern art’s struggle to find new expressions for yet unseen perceptions is duly noted, observed and ignored. John Singer Sargent was obviously content with being the Van Dyck of his age, one of the last of the Old Masters.


John Singer Sargent: "Portrait of Madame X" (1884)


 Henry James attested a ''the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn'', almost an epitaph but quite appropriate for an artist with the Diadochi-fate of being a living legacy, best known and filed under the somewhat derogatory term “salon artist”, innovative arrangements or not. And despite, or maybe because of his immense talent, Singer Sargent “worked like a dog”, as his sister once put it, and not only by playing the full entertainment suite for his sitters, just to get the best out of them, obviously, and console them over the fact that he felt obliged to scrape the canvas clear and start afresh, perfectionist that he was. It was the entertainment aspect that made him withdraw from painting portraits, later in his life, after the volcano they had all danced upon in the “Gilded Age” had exploded in the Great War and the catastrophe of the 20th century began in earnest. And, unlike the other not modern and apparently hidebound contemporary artists, John Singer Sargent, in his basically detached manner, a continuous thread running through all his works, found the means to depict the horror. As a snapshot with the props and the hints that imply the catastrophe without indulging in it. He remained a fateful chronicler of his day and age, or rather the elements of it he chose to see and deemed chronicle-worthy or those that paid well, as with his portraits. John Singer Sargent was arguably the most sought-out portraitist and certainly the best-paid painter of his time. Along with the displayed virtuosity for its own sake, magnificent gimmickry with colour, light and shadow, quotes from art history and ironic bows to great masters, from Velazquez and van Dyck to Reynolds and the ubiquitous Grand Manner. However, storyteller that he was, Sargent’s grand mannered snapshots usually told, or at least hinted, at the sitter’s vita and personality as well, not unlike the so-called “problem pictures”, quite popular picture puzzles in oil asking their spectator to unravel the usually gold-framed scene.


John Singer Sargent "Gassed" (1919)



“Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather's; but since some months goes by the name of Henry James's, for it was there the novelist loved to sit - adds a touch of poesy and comicality. It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end; between us an open door exhibits my palatial entrance hall and a part of my respected staircase. All this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent's; but, of course, it looks dam queer as a whole.”, Stevenson wrote after the painting was finished, about a year before the publication of  “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and, with a touch of Whistler, Sargent captured the whole state of affairs, a hyper nervous novelist, estranged from his wife and an open door that leads to some fantastic realms, a problem picture all in all. But then, everybody looked larger-than-life, more fantastic and somehow more real in the depicted imagination of John Singer Sargent and how he saw his world. A world that ended with the Great War, when modern art finally overtook him and vanished into a world he chose rather not to access, like all the other leftovers of a bygone age, the last academic artists like Sir Edward Poynter or Pre-Raphaelites, Waterhouse or Collier, who withered away in the 1920s and early 1930s, half-forgotten already during their life and times and sneered at by those who did, rather like the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in Earl’s Court. But Singer Sargent still stood apart, a fashionably old fashioned spectator, who observed, experimented, never truly participated, too early ripened for the long 19th century and too ripe for the 20th.


John Singer Sargent "Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife" (1885)


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