“Visiting the galleries of Baroque painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one afternoon, some friends and I paused before Rubens’s portrait of himself with his family, and reminded one another what a remarkable man he was. A painter of stupefying energy and force, he ran a workshop, listened to music as he painted, did the classical scholarship for cycles of paintings that required erudite references, conversed easily in six languages and discharged ambassadorial missions of great delicacy – his second wife, Helen Fourment, was delivered of his last child nine months after his death. One of my companions, the painter David Reed, said, meditatively, that most artists he knows strive to emulate Van Gogh: “Maybe we ought to try to be like Rubens instead.”
“I thought then of the balm it would bring those artists, uneasy with their intact ears and stubborn sanity, if they were to embrace an alternative model of the artist as cultivated, emotionally secure and at home in the world. Not even the disappearance of acceptably marginal real estate from our centers of art is likely to dissolve the mandatory artistic persona of the romantic misfit and lunatic genius. So if we use Van Gogh and Rubens as taxonomic markers, the few artists who volunteer for inclusion in the latter’s class must resist considerable peer pressure and face accusations of shallowness and embourgeoisement. John Singer Sargent was among the unabashed Rubenses of art: urbane, polyglot, at home with the milords and millionaires from whose portraits – and those of their families and mistresses – he earned a handsome living; an extrovert, diner-out, clubman, traveler, marvelous musician and intellectual of sorts, unmarked to a singular degree by the darker passions or stronger drives of the acceptable bohemian. His life, with some exceptions, was a succession of successes, and reviewers of a recent biography seem uniformly resentful of a man who made it through life as an artist without much spiritual agony or material want, and who even died, painlessly, in his sleep. Against the psychopathology of the artistic spirit as we expect it to be lived out, Sargent seems to have been too happy to have been deep.
“Still, those who hold briefs for the artistic benignity of suffering might ponder the fact that Sargent’s one salient episode of serious reversal – the outrage that his great portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) aroused when exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1884 – had just the opposite effect on his career. The brilliant society portraits with which he will be eternally associated came after that, when he removed himself from France and set up as a sort of superficial Impressionist in England. Up to that critical moment he was a child of fortune but a very deep painter indeed, and on the basis of what he achieved in the early 1880s he might have gone on to be very great as well. The wonderfully opportune exhibition of the many sides and phases of his teeming achievement at the Whitney Museum of American Art [this essay was written in 1986] offers us a singular opportunity to test our theories of the uses of adversity.
“Sargent was trained, as it were, to be an Old Master. The Old Master style works from halftones backward to darks and forward to lights which, against the somber tonalities of the canvas, acquire a diamantine luminescence. Think, as example, of Rembrandt, in whose paintings a metaphysically brilliant light splits darkness like a sword and at the same time vests forms with such radiance that it is as though they were redeemed by some holy intervention and touched with grace. Each canvas executes a metaphor of redemption from shadow to light – as if the biblical moment when darkness was lifted from the face of the waters were miraculously reenacted in each biblical episode Rembrandt painted – and even secular episodes take on a kind of biblical intensity. The same amazing light defines special forms against the surrounding darknesses in the painting of Velázquez, and it was Velazquez above all whom Sargent, like the other students in the atelier of the fashionable portraitist Carolus-Duran, was encouraged to emulate. “Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez,” Carolus-Duran said. “Study Velazquez without respite!” Sargent’s first great works – I think, in fact, his greatest works – were done in that mood of darkness slashed and split by light that re-creates the inner force of the Spanish master. These were done in the early 1880s, in Venice, and in terms of their bravura and poetry they are among the most compelling paintings I know. One of them, the Venetian Interior of 1880 (or 1882, these works being evidently difficult to date with precision), has obsessed me since I first saw it, at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, partly because of its depth and partly because of the disparity in depth between this early masterpiece and that of the familiar florid portraits through which we mainly know him.
“The interior of Venetian Interior, as in the other paintings from the brief remarkable period, is a wide corridor that recedes sharply to a back wall where, through a doorway or grilled window, an intense outdoor light is revealed. The interior space seems to have a gentle phosphorescence of its own: the mauve and silver halftones give it a certain submarine quality, perhaps referring to the watery essence of the city of canals and lagoons, and the light is seen as through water. Within these dramatic spaces, shawled women sit, working at monotonous tasks such as bead stringing; or stroll, waving fans; or cluster in intimate groups, exchanging gossip. Doors open on either side, and, somewhat mysteriously, the walls are hung with pictures, as if the spaces had the architectural identity of galleries and the social function of waiting places for slender courtesans. In one of these pictures, a woman looks boldly out at the viewer, as if at a reluctant patron. There is throughout a subdued, suffused but unmistakable eroticism. Because the spaces have a light that is quiet in comparison with the enveloping light we see through the apertures, they seem enclaves of shadow in a world of radiance. This gives them their intimacy and their mystery. In a way, the interiors seem near of architectural kin to Velazquez’s studio, as we know it from Las Meninas, where, as here, an opened door in the back wall allows in an abrupt golden light, as opposed to the white and mineral light with which Sargent invades his cavernous corridors.
“These are not, of course, self-portraits in any obvious sense, but Sargent is present through the bravura of his touches. In the Clark’s Venetian Interior a blade of light crosses the floor with incredible velocity. In the Carnegie Institute’s Venetian Interior a flat blade of light is laid in a single sweep, while a vertical flash summons the face of a heavy Venetian chest out of the darkness. In the Venetian Bead Stringers three horizontal stabs of light constitute openings on the left; six vertical slashes cut a grille into the outer sky. Sargent is inside and outside at once, not part of the reality depicted but present in the depicting, where we are aware of his astonishing brio. The poetry comes from the desire to be inside among the women. In the Sulphur Match, from 1882, a tipsy Venetian leans her chair precariously against a wall, having let a goblet crash at her feet, while Sargent lights her dark partner’s cigar (or pipe?) with a single flash of blazing white. The girl is unimpressed by this; Sargent is an intruder, hopelessly alien in this world he can only make visible. It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example of artistic – or sexual – alienation.
“Sargent had the ambitions of a Jamesian hero: he wanted to be great as well as successful in worldly terms, which, in the economics of the time, required portraying the rich and powerful. And in his great portrait Madame X, he came close to achieving some of the erotic profundity of the Venetian interiors and making a fine fee. This time, of course, he and the subject were of the same world, and there is a familiarity, an intimacy, an almost conversational ease, implied in the relationship between the master painter and the great beauty he depicts. Madame Gautreau, like Sargent an expatriated American, had made it to the top through her wit, her looks and her social strategy. Sargent portrays her as a creature of tense elegance, with a profile as sharp and precise as if carved out of some hard, brittle material: the pink ear conveys the cameo intentions in her outlined features. She wears the crescent-shaped tiara of Diana the huntress; she is a woman of predatory sensuality, whose black velvet décolleté and lifted flounce is her costume de chasse. The costume is as witty as her sly nose and brilliant as her gemstones. The painting provoked a scandal when first exhibited in Paris. The reasons are obscure, but rather than culminating the efforts of a decade in a searing success, Sargent created a furor the like of which had not been seen since Manet exhibited his notorious Olympia. (I am touched that Sargent, together with Claude Monet, headed a private subscription to purchase Manet’s masterpiece for an ungrateful French state: Olympia was not shown until 1917, and Sargent kept Madame X in his studio until 1905, twenty-one years after the debacle.) As a result, Sargent cut his ties with Paris, where the great promise of the Venetian years might have been fulfilled, and removed himself to England, which has been an artistic backwater at the best of times. There he turned into a rather superficial artist, the maker of dazzling portraits and dubious Impressionist studies. He tried to make contact with some deeper source of artistic meaning when he undertook the mural cycle for the Boston Public Library. But all light has fled from these turgid works; one feels, for all the glamour of his career, that he had made a profound mistake. The subjects of tragedies can also live happily ever after, the tragedy consisting in just that.
“Sargent never lost the Velázquez touch, which is there for us to marvel at in the gallery of stunning portraits that is the heart of the show (even if a heart worn on the sleeve). I had the pleasure of Patricia Hills’s company in walking through the exhibition on my second visit. Hills organized the show and edited the catalogue to which she also contributed some fine essays – and together we responded to the authority with which Sargent transacted a lavender sash or evoked a bow out of a few curls and dabs of white paint. No one alive today could show the flesh through thin fabric as in his portrait of Lady Agnew’s left arm. No one alive today could, as in a scene of Venetian glass blowers, drag a brush across the canvas so that each bristle picks out a separate rod, and we see brushstroke and rod bundle in a single glance. Of Velázquez, Sir Kenneth Clark once wrote:
I would start from as far away as possible, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer, until suddenly what had been a hand, and a ribbon and a piece of velvet dissolved into a fricassee of beautiful brushstrokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but it proved to be as elusive as the moment between sleeping and waking.
“The elusive moment is that of the boundary between matter and art, perhaps between body and mind. But you can have that experience over and over in the work of Sargent. He really had the divine prerogative of lifting life out of paint with the turn of his amazing wrist, and it is, I think, a lost art. There is no Carolus-Duran any longer to teach us how. Spend some time studying the buckle on the belt of Mrs. 1. N. Phelps Stokes, from 1897. And contemplate her white skirt, which falls in heavy folds to the ground. Sargent is said to have painted it over seventeen times, according to Hills.
“But there is none of the poetry that left the work after the fiasco with Madame Gautreau’s portrait, and that is so palpable a substance in the Venetian interiors that you will want to return to them again and again. Except for the portraits, in the years after 1884 the work seems to me dry and flat. Sargent tried Impressionism, but that is not a country for Old Masters, and I feel he had no internal understanding of what revolutions in touch and vision Impressionism implied. His watercolors have the look of examples of how to do watercolors, and if one did not know them to be by Sargent, one would suppose them resurrected from the annual of some provincial watercolor society. It was a style of depositing wash on paper that others could and did acquire. I find his drawings equally dry, for all the certitude of touch and his perfect draftsmanly control. In none of the work after 1884 do we sense any urgency of feeling or the presence of a soul.
“What we sense, only, is the presence of a great arm, a genius wrist, the dazzle of a virtuoso performer executing, as on a violin, a composition written in order to make virtuosity possible – where the piece is finally about the playing of it by the rare talents capable of doing so in public, with confidence and flourish and flash. There are those who think that painting is what painting is all about, and for them Sargent should be the paradigm artist. I am not one who thinks that, but there is enough of what art is about on my view of it to make this exhibition a joy as well as a moral puzzle. If nothing else there is the pleasure of the menagerie, in which his lords and ladies, his flounced amazons, his opulent merchants and silken mistresses, his candy children and austere dowagers glare past us, as exotic specimens, from an upstairs our very downstairs antecedents could barely guess at.”
From: Arthur Danto, “Encounters & Reflections: Art in the Historical Present “