Success gained, greatness lost

John Singer Sargent's gift for portraiture gave him a comfortable living, but shut him off from a role in the era's major art developments.

April 25, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

It is possible for a painter to have too much facility and too little nerve. Such was the case with the American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who lived long enough and was celebrated enough to become a victim of his own success.

That, at least, is the perhaps unintended message of the Sargent exhibition that opened earlier this year at Washington's National Gallery of Art and runs through the end of May. It recalls T.S. Eliot's droll line about a world that begins with a bang and ends with a whimper.

Organized in roughly chronological order, the National Gallery show starts with Sargent's youthful landscapes and subject pictures of the 1870s and 1880s, which demonstrate a wunderkind's brilliant brushwork and eye for light and color.

It ends rather anticlimactically in the dull brown reaches of the commemorative mural Sargent painted for the British War Department in 1919, whose self-conscious solemnity and false sentimentality barely rise above the level of commercial illustration.

Such was the arc of a career that adds up to a meditation on the tragedy of unrealized potential. Sargent did most of his best work while still in his 20s, with an eye toward securing his reputation through the conservative Paris Salon. Then he sold out to the highest bidder and ended as an honorable hack. He was, like Brando's has-been prizefighter in "On the Waterfront," someone who "coulda been a contender."

Of course, Sargent was a contender in the lucrative but conventional arena to which he single-mindedly -- if later grudgingly -- devoted himself. He desperately wanted a career as a fashionable society portraitist.

He got his wish (warning: be careful what you wish for), and the National Gallery now has obligingly given over a substantial part of its show to the results of those efforts.

A child of restless American expatriates in Europe, Sargent showed talent early, with a virtuoso technique that enabled him to create stunning painterly likenesses that approached the visual authority of photography.

He knew how to capture the play of light and shadow in interiors illuminated by sunlight streaming through a window, how to arrest the sensual movement of a dancer or trace the subtle lines of a beautiful woman's face. The paintings from this early period of the artist's development, like "Wineglasses" (1871), "Venetian Interior" (1882) and "Fumee d'ambre gris" (1880), are among the show's loveliest.

Having studied under the Parisian portraitist Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran in the mid-1870s, Sargent set out to make his reputation by conquering the Paris Salon, of which his teacher had long been a member.

Sargent was already a superb portraitist, and he had enough of the courtier's glib enthusiasm to subtly suggest his sitters' inner moods without puncturing their sense of decorum.

He was especially sensitive to women and children. It's not surprising that his two great paintings of 1882, "El Jaleo," not included in the show, and "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," which is, are among the artist's earliest masterpieces.

Nor was Sargent above outright flattery when it suited his purposes. He could endow the most insufferable fops and poseurs with an aura of classical dignity, as in his portraits of the effete social gadfly W. Graham Robertson or the supercilious young Lord Dalhousie. And he seemed congenitally incapable of withholding from anyone sitting in front of his easel an approving, finely burnished patina of old money and manners.

In this he was unlike Goya, who recorded the foibles and personal failings of his sitters with almost clinical detachment, or Velasquez, whose powers as a colorist also conveyed acute psychological insight. Sargent didn't mind buttering up his sitters or giving them poetic attributes they surely did not possess in life.

For his discretion he was handsomely rewarded, showered with commissions, honors and even friendship by a trans-Atlantic upper-class only too willing to subsidize a fawning, uncritical image of itself that managed to survive both the sinking of the Titanic and the horrors of World War I.

Ironically, Sargent succeeded too well only once during his long career. And this incident provoked a crisis that probably represented his last best chance to climb out of the artistic trap he had set for himself.

That high point of Sargent's career, his famous portrait of "Madame X," fittingly occupies pride of place in the National Gallery's show. Begun in 1883, the painting depicts Madame Pierre Gautreau, a preternaturally pale-skinned American adventuress and social climber who had married a French banker and become a creature of Paris' society pages.

The lady thrived on scandal, and she and Sargent surely conspired to make a splash for both of them when the picture was unveiled at the Salon of 1884.

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