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Portrays the life of the distinguished artist, discusses the development of his painting, and analyzes his murals, society portraits, and watercolor paintings
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Carter Ratcliff is a leading art critic and contributing editor of Art in America. Among his many books are Botero, Andy Warhol, Komar and Melamid, and The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Post-War American Art. He has taught at the School of Visual Arts and Hunter College and lectured at a variety of institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
PROLOGUE: Point of View
A work of art, a flourish of manners, even the faintest hints of life” could strike Henry James with the force of revelation.” He always stood ready to be impressed, though his standards were so high he was often let down. James was a connoisseur of disappointment, but only reluctantly; when he found reason to hope, he celebrated. Of John Singer Sargent’s Lady with a Rose, 1882 (plate 90), he wrote: it offers the slightly uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. It is not simply precocity in the guise of maturity a phenomenon we very often meet, which deceives us only for an hour; it is the freshness of youth combined with the artistic experience, really felt and assimilated, of generations ”
James had no difficulty seeking out this new talent, for the world of expatriate Americans was heavily populated but tightly knit. James and Sargent met in Paris, sometime during the early 1880s. In a letter to his friend Grace Norton, James said: The only Franco-American product of importance here strikes me as young John Sargent the painter, who has high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilized to his finger-tips. He is perhaps spoilable though I don’t think he is spoiled. But I hope not, for I like him extremely; and the best of his work seems to me to have in it something exquisite.
Two years after Sargent’s critical triumph at the Salon of 1882 with his Lady with a Rose, he sent only one picture to the Salon his notorious Madame X (plate 120). The subject is Virginie Avegno Gautreau, in a haughty pose and a black dress with a deep décolletage. This image was so deeply offensive to Salon-goers that when Sargent left in June for a holiday in England, his Parisian career was in jeopardy.
Sargent had been preceded in London by Henry James, who immediately arranged a series of studio visits. The main stop on there tour was the studio of Edward Burne-Jones, then the leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 he had been quite the lion of the occasion,” according to James, who ranked him at the head of the English painters of our day.” Now, sever years later, Sargent and James saw Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (plate 3), his latest venture into the grand genre of history painting. Its subject, out of Elizabethan balladry by way of Tennyson, is that of a worldly ruler daunted by a superior spirit. The king has given his throne to the beggar maid, who consents to sit there but will not accept his crown. It was his finest thing,” according to Henry James ”very beautiful and interesting.”
Sargent liked it too, though, James continued, I am afraid poor, dear, lovely, but slightly narrow B.J. suffers from a constitutional incapacity to appreciate Sargent’s [paintings] finding in them such a want of finish.’” The younger artist’s elliptical manner was anathema to the Pre-Raphailites, whose obsessive attention to detail inspired John Ruskin to praise them for rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Ruskin exaggerates, of course every painter’s image results from selection. Yet Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the rest of the Brotherhood did attempt to make their art all inclusive, if only in the implications generated by an intricate machinery of symbols. By contrast, Sargent’s style, like his way of life, was an unremitting process of selection and dismissal. He accepted nothing, in art or the world, that failed to please his relentlessly elegant eye. He rejected much. For all his generous appreciation of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Sargent did not let it affect his work.
Still, Sargent always got along well with the Pre-Raphaelite lion,” who was at the height of his career when the two met. Burne-Jones had even begun to receive portrait commissions an odd development, considering that all his subjects, observed or imaginary, have the heavy jaw and lidded eyes of the idea type he learned from Rossetti. Burne-Jones, for his part, liked Sargent. It wasn’t so much an attraction of opposites as a kindly feeling between two cultivated individuals whose aesthetics belonged to incompatible worlds. Their differences were more than a question of meticulous finish versus painterly bravura. Burne-Jone’s childhood, by his own testimony, had been a time of ugliness and deprivation. By the time Rossetti initiated him into art he was well into his twenties. Sargent had grown up in Florence, surrounded by artifacts of the Renaissance and encouraged to draw and play the piano by a mother who painted in watercolor herself. Sargent’s best landscapes blend immediate observation with gracefully theatrical perspectives, while Burne-Jones’s subjects direct the imagination to an otherworldly realm of idealized forms and transcendent symbols. King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid poses questions about the social and economic order; Sargent never for a moment doubted the fitness of that order.
During the late 1870s Burne-Jones took an active part in the pro-democracy, anti-imperialism politics of England’s Liberal party. Opposed by Disraeli, the Liberals faded. Burne-Jones withdrew to his studio, yet he always considered his art a higher form of political expression. Sargent was so indifferent to politics that his first thought, on hearing about the outbreak of World War I, was that he and some of his friends, caught behind unfriendly borders, were going to suffer passport difficulties. Sargent’s view of the war deepened, of course. When a niece was killed during the shelling of a church, he felt a sadness that may never have left him. In 1918 he volunteered for duty as an official war artist, producing pictures of trenches and ruined French towns that are convincingly grim. Still, Sargent doesn’t seem to have felt the horror, the doubt about the very premises of Western civilization, that afflicted Henry James during the way years.
Though he played significant variations on the radical styles of Edouard Manet and Claude Money, Sargent never stood wholeheartedly with the modernists. Modernism challenges a faith that he always preserved, and that faith reached beyond art to affect his attitudes about society. Though the Sargent family was not rich by the standards of the Victorian plutocracy, his mother and father had enough money between them to maintain a respectable front in their travels through Italy, Switzerland, and France. Raised amid servants, Sargent took no notice of the poor who so disturbed a democrat and idealist like Burne-Jones. When peasants and workers appear in Sargent’s art, they belong to the scenery. By the turn of the century, he had found a way to adapt the tradition of Joshua Reynolds to an age of railroad magnates and newspaper tycoons.
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