Friday, February 17, 2012

The Enigma of John Sargent's Art by RH Ives Gammell

Sargent Painting Mrs. Fiske Warren
and Her Daughter Rachel (painting below)
Recently there was a question wondering what R.H. Ives Gammell thought about John Singer Sargent. One of the artists involved, Tom Dunlay (who studied with Gammell for 8 years), shared the answer by sending me The Enigma of John Sargent's Art, and I thought that you might like to read it. Mr. Gammell's hypothesis focuses on what it was that motivated JSS to create his finest work.

"In the course of his working life John Sargent devoted his energies to several kinds of painting. He painted portraits and figure pieces and mural decorations. He sketched all sorts of subjects in watercolors and in oils. He devoted some of his time to sculpture and not a little of it to designing textiles. He made portrait studies in charcoal. Though he took up these various activities at widely separated periods of his existence it is notable that, generally speaking, his earliest productions in each of these several fields remained superior to anything he subsequently produced in the same form.

Mrs. Fiske-Warren and Her
Daughter, Rachel
The work of no other eminent painter falls into a similar pattern. Pictures painted in the later years of an artist's career often show a decline due to physiological changes or to illness. Some painters, overwhelmed by the press of orders, have entrusted the execution of their pictures to assistants, with unfortunate results. Some have been spoiled by success. Others have prostituted their talents for the sake of gain. In Sargent's case none of these causes were operative.

Throughout his life the sincerity and humility of his attitude toward painting was recognized as one of his outstanding characteristics. He was never much interested in financial gain. Except when painting portraits, he chose his own subject matter and worked on his own time schedule. His faculties continued to be unimpaired until the day of his death and his physical strength declined far less than that of most men.

The baffling thing about Sargent as an artist is that we can discern no completely dominant motive behind his urge to paint.
  • His was not an art of self-expression, as was that of a Delacroix, of a Puvis de Chavannes, or a Burne-Jones, for instance. 
  • Nor was it in essence an art of conviction, dedicated to an ideal principle of interpretation and workmanship, as we recognize the art of Manet, of Degas, or of Whistler to have been. Sargent's approach was akin to that of these last-named men, but his fidelity to a particular concept of painting was less complete and uncompromising than theirs. 
It was precisely this absence of a deeply felt guiding principle which puzzled the serious artists of his time and kept them from giving their wholehearted admiration to the work of a man whose great talent and obvious sincerity they could not fail to recognize. * (see note below)

Boston Public Library Mural of Prophets
The first murals seemed to herald the development of something resembling an art of self-expression but the promise was not fulfilled by the later decorations. Only a few of Sargent's canvases, and all of those were painted early in his career, achieve the full dignity of great impressionist art. The majority of his pictures are apt to suggest a disinterested display of virtuosity rather than devotion to a high artistic ideal. If, after studying Sargent's mural decorations, we re-examine his output as a whole we may feel justified in hazarding an analysis of his elusive personality.

Everything we know of his working procedures indicates that Sargent's creative thinking took place in his subconscious mind to an extent very unusual in a painter who has proved himself capable of acquiring a high degree of professional skill. Subconscious mental activity does play an important role in all artistic creation, of course. It is, however, characteristic of the art of painting that, once an idea has been conceived and its general orientation has been established, translating that idea into effective pictorial terms requires very clear thinking and the judicious application of much acquired knowledge. In Sargent's case an unusually large part of these later operations seems to have been worked out in the earlier subconscious processes. To a bystander, and quite possibly to Sargent himself, his pictures may have appeared to take shape spontaneously in very nearly their final form. The gropings and the experimental studies whereby artists ordinarily arrive at their final results are relatively rare in Sargent's work. When he made a failure it was a poor picture from the start and it remained so. The tricks of patching and altering or of reconstructing an unsuccessful composition, which most painters consider an indispensable element of their craft, were apparently scarcely known to him. He seemed incapable of telling anyone how he had arrived at a given result. He presumably was only vaguely aware of it himself. The necessary brain work had been largely subconscious, or so rapid that the artist appeared to have been guided by instinct rather than by reasoning. A painter able to work in this fashion often seems to have no very clear idea of what he is trying to do because it has never been necessary for him to formulate his aims to himself.

When this kind of mental activity is basically responsible for the quality of a work of art, the artist can do comparatively little to control it. He can toil assiduously, of course, as Sargent certainly did. But his work will only reflect the full measure of his capacity when the faculties dormant in his subconscious are aroused to their maximum activity. At other times his painting will tend to be a routine version of what he produced in his "inspired" moments. An artist of this type probably has very little idea of how his mind functions. He simply goes on painting as best he can until some external stimulus awakens the forces of his psychic being to intense creative activity. Only at such times is he likely to produce his finest work.

If we feel justified in assuming that John Sargent's psychic mechanism conformed to some pattern of this kind we naturally will wish to ascertain what sort of stimulus served to set it in motion. 

In this connection a comment made to me by his niece comes to my mind. It seemed to her that her uncle was attracted to his chosen subject matter by virtue of the very difficulties which it presented to him as a painter. And here we perhaps have the key to the riddle. 

Apparently something in Sargent's inner nature responded in an unusual degree to the challenge of an exceptionally difficult technical problem. The challenge aroused no mere impulse to demonstrate his skill, as it might have in a lesser nature. In Sargent's case it seems on occasion rather to have engendered a series of reactions involving all the resources of his extraordinarily gifted personality, focusing their activity on the problem in hand and releasing emotional drives usually quiescent. Is it not reasonable to suppose that the subconscious of this reserved, inexpressive man, whose emotional life seems never to have found an outlet in any personal relationship, was dominated by an exceptionally powerful compensatory urge to assert his superiority? A peculiarity of his nature made it extremely difficult for him to express himself in speech or action and whenever possible he evaded occasions for so doing. In this he was aided by circumstances, for he received as his birthright many things which most men obtain only with effort: education, financial independence, and access to the most desirable society. His cosmopolitan existence released him from the duties of citizenship, and he never assumed the responsibilities of family life. His inability to deal with practical matters was proverbial. Serious illness and love passed him by. He even lacked the capacity for vicarious experience which ordinarily marks the creative artist.

Had he not painted. John Sargent would have passed for an amiable, cultivated though colorless man of the world. But he happened to be endowed with a prodigious talent for painting, coupled with an exceptional receptivity to art. literature, and music. All his other-wise unexpended energies were concentrated on the exercise of this dual gift.

No painter can have practiced his own art more constantly than did Sargent, and he found his relaxation chiefly in music, in reading, and in looking at works of art. His extraordinary talent, developed by ceaseless industry and tempered by continuous contact with the best that the human mind has produced, kept his work on a high artistic level at most times.

But Sargent attained his maximum potential, as it would seem, only when his subconscious will to power was aroused by an opportunity to assert his superiority through his art. The challenge of a fresh and exceptionally difficult artistic problem apparently induced a catalysis whereby all the latent forces of his immensely gifted personality and the accumulated store of his impressions merged into a single creative effort.

Let us glance briefly at the record.

  • The admirable portrait of Carolus-Duran (1877). executed by a young man of twenty-one under the critical eye of his master whose presence obviously put the boy on his mettle, is almost as fine in workmanship as anything he was later to paint. 
Portrait of Carolus-Duran

  • Two years afterwards came the spectacular El Jaleo (1881), a tour de force if ever a picture was, which, in spite of certain defects of drawing apparent in the secondary figures, might perhaps be taken as the most complete expression of his characteristic qualities that Sargent ever achieved.
El Jaleo
  • In the following year (1882) he painted the lovely Lady With A Rose and finished the Boit Children, a composition in which the difficulties always attending on the painting of children were compounded by problems of rendering light and atmosphere on a vast scale. Faced with this inordinately difficult subject which inevitably evoked comparisons with Velasquez' Las Meninas. Sargent created a masterpiece.
The Daughters of Edward D. Boit

  • It was followed by the portrait of Madame Gautreau (1884). The difficulties presented by this portrait were no less real, though they are less obvious. The subject was a conspicuous "beauty" of the time, very much in the public eye. and an uncooperative sitter. Hers was a singular type of beauty, emphasized by makeup, which even a slight exaggeration or understatement of form could turn into ugliness. As was his way, Sargent made things harder by electing to paint the lady in an attitude suggesting arrested motion. Once again he was triumphantly successful. 
Madame X
The four last-named pictures belong in the great line of impressionist painting, each one in its particular way on a level which Sargent never quite reached again. When he finished Madame Gautreau, he was twenty-eight years old.

Almost immediately an entirely new set of pictorial problems gave a fresh impetus to his creative activity. At this epoch painters were increasingly preoccupied by the problems of plein-air painting, the chief of which consisted in making accurate color notations of the transient effects created by ever-changing light and weather out of doors. Once more we find Sargent attacking a new problem in its most complex form, heaping Ossa upon Pelion to increase the obstacles he proposed to surmount. He chose the most illusive lighting conceivable, the brief moment of twilight between sundown and dusk. He created an additional complication by introducing the artificial light of candles seen through Japanese paper-lanterns. Again he took children for his models, dressing them in white frocks which assumed hues of exceptional delicacy in the gloaming. He surrounded these young models with flowers whose shapes and colors were scarcely less elusive than those of the children themselves. The result was Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886), a picture unique in the vast output of nineteenth-century plein-air painting. Sargent never again attempted anything of this kind.

Painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

The particular qualities which make these pictures great do not recur in Sargent's subsequent work in a comparable degree. The portraits painted during the next twelve years included some of his most brilliant achievements. Remarkable as they are in characterization and in handling, and occasionally as pictures, even the best of them somehow fall short of being classed with the world's greatest portraits. Whereas the best canvases of the eighties elicited comparisons with Velasquez and Hals, the portraits of the nineties were more often praised for being superior to Boldini's and Laszlo's or as perhaps rivaling those of Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Duke of Portland
and his collies

We still find Sargent seeking difficulties as if they provided a dram for his genius. He sets the Duke of Portland to playing with his collies, paints Mrs. George Batten in the act of singing a song, groups Mrs. Carl Meyer and Mrs. Edgar L. Davis in complicated attitudes with their restless children. The results are amazing and exciting but in some ways less satisfying than many portraits by far less gifted men. After the turn of the century Sargent's portraits rarely reach the level established earlier by his own best work.

Between 1890 and 1904 mural decoration provided Sargent with another artistic adventure capable of drawing out all his latent capabilities. He responded to this fresh challenge in the two great lunettes at the Public Library, in the frieze of the prophets, and in the Astarte. The new problems brought into play previously untapped resources of his imagination and of his literary background, enabling Sargent to create masterpieces fully as remarkable in their way as his finest achievements in the field of impressionist painting. From then on it is disappointing to follow the progressive decline of his later mural work which reaches its lowest point in one of the Widener Library panels.

Boston Library Murals

About 1906 Sargent began exhibiting watercolors. and during the following decade his most brilliant work was done in that refractory medium. It is, in point of fact, the most difficult and unmanageable of all mediums for an artist bent on precise color-notation. Sargent rapidly made it his own, becoming almost immediately the most accomplished watercolorist which the world has yet seen. We find him successfully rendering subjects that would baffle the skill of almost any other painter even in the less difficult medium of oil: linen hung out to dry in flickering sunlight, white marble buildings silhouetted against white clouds, ladies resting on windswept hilltops, oxen and donkeys and alligators. Many observers have thought that the watercolors painted in the first decade of the century were his best, but he continued to turn them out until the end of his life with little apparent decline, perhaps because by their very nature they made few demands on his inner being. In this art everything depended on sheer dexterity and brilliance on "making the most of an emergency," as he himself defined painting a watercolor. With the phrase he consciously gave the best characterization of his entire approach to art.

He loved to make the most of an emergency and the greater the emergency,
the more he was usually able to make of it.

My interpretation may answer another question frequently raised in connection with John Sargent. Why did this brilliant, many faceted artist continue for so long to accept portrait orders? By the early nineties he had accumulated a considerable fortune and enjoyed international celebrity. The professional portrait painter's task is notoriously exhausting, frustrating, and thankless. Sargent himself complained of it to his friends. 1 had it from a man who in his youth had consulted Sargent as to whether he should take up painting, that the most sought after painter in the world adjured him to avoid portraiture. "It ruined me," said John Sargent. Why then did he go on for another decade accepting orders from all and sundry? Because, perhaps, each unknown, unsolicited sitter presented the fresh challenge which his nature required, an unexpected, unpredictable artistic problem demanding a solution.

This brief review of Sargent's career would seem to lend considerable support to the hypothesis I have outlined above. More than a hypothesis such an analysis could not pretend to be. Any attempt to describe the creative processes of a great artist is useful only insofar as it may help to understand and appreciate the artist's work. The art of John Sargent has puzzled both his admirers and those to whom it makes no appeal. Even the most appreciative have realized that it was strangely lacking in some fundamental quality of feeling. But this deficiency, which may perhaps be attributed, as I have suggested, to the emotional poverty of Sargent's initial creative impulse, should certainly not cause us to undervalue the intellectual power and technical brilliance of the resulting art or to doubt the sincerity of the artist.

Gustave Flaubert maintained that an artist, to achieve lasting fame, needs must either chisel a Parthenon or amass a pyramid. John Sargent stands with the pyramid builders. Perhaps no painter of comparable artistic stature has ever, unaided by assistants, been as prolific. The magnitude and variety of his output staggers the mind. The two outstanding characteristics of his art are vitality and a certain element of surprise. While the pervading sense of life captured at full swing still animates the best murals, canvases, water colors, and drawings, familiarity has perhaps dulled our appreciation of what were once startlingly novel presentations of familiar subjects which amazed and some-times shocked his public. To take the full measure of Sargent's originality one must restudy the art of his own time whose wilder manifestations look more and more like the eccentricities of minor artists hampered by their inadequate technical command. Sargent both knew his trade and kept to the main line of the western tradition, but his originality is manifested in everything he did. His work was uneven in quality, no doubt. His splendid contribution may be likened to that of a torrent which gushes headlong down the mountainside bearing, together with minerals of lesser value, nuggets of the purest gold." ~ R.H. Ives Gammell in Classical America

* Sir William Rothenstein, who was on friendly terms with the leading English and French artists of the period, wrote: "We all acknowledged his (Sargent's) immense accomplishment as a painter to be far beyond anything of which we were capable. But the disparity between his gifts and our own we were inclined to discount by thinking that we had qualities which somehow placed us among the essential artists while he, in spite of his great gifts, remained outside the charmed circle. I was used to hearing both Whistle and Degas speak disparagingly of Sargent's work. Even Helleu, Boldini and Gandar regarded him more as a brilliant executant than as an artist of high rank."

The Boston Library, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard University murals:

Excellent website of Sargent's work:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much Linda for posting this article. I enjoyed reading it and checking out the links you provided. It is interesting to catch Gammell's viewpoints on the spectacular Sargent.