Singer's Song

Despite the innovation surrounding him, John Singer Sargent plotted his own restrained course

The thought of a John Singer Sargent exhibition without his signature society portraits will strike some viewers as perverse. After all, Sargent made his reputation as a portrayer of the bluebloods and the nouveau riche alike in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they are considered by many the sine qua non of his painting career.

But John Singer Sargent: Beyond the Portrait Studio accomplishes something extraordinary, precisely because the portraits are absent. The exhibition allows us to focus on Sargent's whole career, his proclivities as an artist, and to learn something about the fin-de-siècle European art world that is otherwise obscured by the prodigious amount of drool his luscious society portraits elicit among viewers today.

The lessons we learn about Sargent aren't always what we thought we wanted to know. Although he is often portrayed as a supremely self-assured artist, insisting on painting in the grand style and turning confidently away from modernism's encroach, the exhibition says otherwise. Sargent emerges here as a man out of time, pursuing styles and projects that, though often visually stunning, were anachronistic, strangely editorial or otherwise paradoxical in the decades in which the 19th century gave way to the 20th. We emerge, after viewing this exhibition, with a fuller, if less fawning, picture of celebrated American expatriate Sargent.

Sargent's "Spanish Fountain, " 1912, watercolor and graphite
Sargent's "Spanish Fountain, " 1912, watercolor and graphite

The exhibition opens like a standard biography, with the youthful works, the simple graphite drawings of landscapes and studies after statuary that were generated by Sargent's Baedeker upbringing. He had spent his early years traveling with his family through Switzerland, Germany and Italy, his parents encouraging his interest in art and his talent for sketching. Early watercolors, such as "Tyrolean Shrine" (1871) and his "Splendid Mountain Watercolours Sketchbook," indicate a growing preference for the medium in which he would excel in his adult years.

As a young man of 18 years, Sargent studied at the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts and was accepted at Emile Carolus-Duran's Parisian atelier, where he was exposed to techniques that might have made him a modernist -- but didn't. He studied at the Ecole at a time when students were first being encouraged to be less academic -- and more spontaneous -- in their drawings. This, coupled with Carolus-Duran's emphasis on direct tonal painting and the work of Velasquez and Hals, fueled the confidence and complexity one sees in studies such as "Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)" (1883-84) and "After 'El Jaleo'" (1882) and would inform the famous oil paintings related to these works (not on view in this exhibition).

Decades before, this same training was given to Edouard Manet, in whose hands modernist painting was born. In Sargent's hands, the techniques yield brilliant but controlled passages set within solid, predictable pictorial structures that never threaten to give way, as Manet's often do. Sargent was even acquainted with Claude Monet and most certainly absorbed from him some lessons in capturing effects of light and shadow, but he never adopted the impressionist's tendency toward dissolution of form. A certain restraint abides in all of Sargent's works; they will never be mistaken for paintings by his modernist contemporaries in Paris.

It's instructive to remember that in the late 19th century, Sargent was working in the midst of an avant-garde revolution in painting. Manet's groundbreaking experiments in form and content were well known; the impressionists had made modern life a perfectly acceptable subject for painting. Van Gogh was dead in 1890, but his expressionist daring was gaining in reputation. Paul Gauguin was on his way to Tahiti to cultivate an alternative lifestyle and aesthetic -- and hoping to get rich and famous in the process. Against this backdrop, Sargent continued to travel, sketch and make watercolors and society portraits -- in other words, to behave as if modernist painting had never occurred.

Sargent was also seemingly uninterested in the accomplishments of his fellow American expatriate, James McNeill Whistler. By 1880, Whistler was already famous for his highly atmospheric paintings and for espousing the virtues of art for art's sake; he was infamous for suing the critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin accused Whistler of hoodwinking the public with his incompetent canvases.

Sargent experienced his own share of scandal, but it derived more from the petty social politics of his wealthy clientele than from his somewhat exaggerated portrait style. In the wake of the "Madame X" scandal of 1884 (he painted her right shoulder strap erotically slipped over her shoulder), Sargent left Paris for London, settling in and eventually developing a clientele who hungered for portraits done in the grand manner. It seemed no one but Sargent was still bothering to do them. But even he soon tired of such work, giving up the "paughtraits," as he once called them, in favor of traveling and making watercolors.

It's in the watercolors that Sargent is at his most experimental. In works such as "In the Generalife" (1912), Sargent used every technique known to him. In this portrayal of his sister and her friend in Spain, he combined graphic underdrawing with wet and dry watercolor techniques. He also made incisions directly into the paper and left unpainted areas of paper in reserve that shine through among the painted dabs. Finally Sargent employed the wax-resist technique, making scribbles with a white wax-emulsion crayon that repelled subsequent layers of watercolor and served up bright, bravura passages against heavily saturated areas of green and blue paint.

If Sargent is known for anything besides portraits, it is his watercolors, and this exhibition includes some beauties. Among the best are his scenes of Venice passageways, alleys and canals, in which the watercolor perfectly captures the atmosphere and abstract qualities of the city. If Sargent had done nothing else in his career, he would probably still have become known as one of the best watercolorists who ever worked.

In the latter part of his career, he was given the chance to produce monumental public murals, in his view the greatest of all categories of painting. In 1890, he received the commission for "The Triumph of Religion" for the Boston Public Library; included in this exhibition are several sketches for the bombastic cycle, which was well received in the early 20th century but since has been all but ignored (critic Robert Hughes recently dismissed it unceremoniously as "weird"). This exhibition also includes sketches for murals at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Widener Library. In all these works, Sargent seems out of his element. His compositions are hackneyed and lifeless, vain attempts to enter into a practice that, by the time Sargent got around to it, was already passé.

His struggle with the mural genre notwithstanding, Sargent found himself called upon to perform another public service in 1918. He was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to travel to war-torn France in the final months of World War I to produce a monumental piece commemorating the joint war efforts of British and American soldiers. That large oil painting, "Gassed" (1919), is now the property of the British War Museum and is not included in this exhibition. But on display are several watercolor studies Sargent completed during his tour in 1918.

As with the public murals, Sargent proved himself oddly unsuited to the task of war reportage. In his watercolor studies, he seems to have been more interested in silent scenes of fields, disinterested mules or tents in the sunlight. "Wheels in Vault" looks like a rustic pastoral in the English countryside; "Truck Convoy" and "Military Camp" contain not the slightest whiff of war. The only soldiers Sargent portrayed here were nude ones bathing in a stream ("Tommies Bathing"), who might as well be frolicking in a Greek arcadian landscape.

Sargent was about as interested in the war as he was in politics or modern art or progress in general -- that is, not at all. Almost completely detached from his times, Sargent's aloofness led him to produce some of the greatest paintings, and some of the strangest, of his era. John Singer Sargent: Beyond the Portrait Studio perfectly captures the anachronistic quality that characterizes so much of Sargent's work; it is, therefore, essential viewing, even if it doesn't make you drool.

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