Book Review: John Singer Sargent – Figures and Landscapes
by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray
Yale University Press, 2017
This enormous undertaking, the assemblage of a catalogue raisonné for the complete paintings of the great John Singer Sargent, now comes to a grand end with Volume IX, Figures and Landscapes, 1914-1925, edited by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray for Yale University Press.
The project began a lifetime ago, when David McKibbin, the art librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, assembled as much information as he could find about Sargent’s artwork – the provenance, the whereabouts, and ownership of every painting. He fired off an endless stream of wheedling, cajoling, demanding, inquiring letters, and by the time of his death from stomach cancer in 1978, he’d amassed a grand and slightly ramshackle body of information, a work he handed over to Richard Ormond. The first volume of this series from Yale University Press appeared in 1998, and one magnificent volume after another has followed, charting Sargent’s career all the way to the beginning of the First World War, which is where this present volume finds him, painting in the Tyrol when violence erupts in Europe.
The volume has excursions to many places, including sultry Florida and the Canadian Rockies, but its two main arches are war and culture: Sargent’s determination to capture something of the World War in his art, and Sargent’s trip to America in 1916 in order to oversee the installation of his Triumph of Religion murals at the Boston Public Library (while staying at the storied Hotel Vendome). Since this volume also covers Sargent’s acceptance of a major new project to provide the murals for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in its new Beaux-Arts masterpiece on Huntington Avenue opened in 1909, no Bostonian fan of Sargent should be without it, particularly since here, as throughout the series, the in-depth essays collected on various aspects of Sargent’s work ask all the right questions and never fail to fascinate, as in “Mural-Related and Classical Studies, c. 1891-1920”:
The question is what prompted Sargent to take up classical subjects at this particular time. It is true that he could no longer travel to the continent to pain landscapes, as he had been doing every summer and autumn for many years, so he had time on his hands, and he was never afraid to strike out in new directions. Is it possible that the idea of decorations in the rotunda had already been discussed at that the artist was painting classical subjects to prepare himself in advance? Or was it the other way round, Sargent, inspired by this new subject matter, persuading the trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts to give him space to expand his ideas on a grandiose scale?
As with earlier volumes in this set, here every effort has been made to trace and often photograph the specific locations of Sargent’s various sketches and watercolors, and the inclusion of every Florentine portico or Venetian bridge only underscores how long ago the incredibly lifelike humans in those paintings have gone to their graves; it renders all the more affecting the many quick sketches of young soldiers napping in the sun in full combat kit, or the muscular black Florida fishermen and stevedores painted in languorous nudity.
That very element of immediate vulnerability is reversed and unbearably sharpened in Sargent’s 1919 masterpiece Gassed: The Dressing Station at Le Bac-du-Sud, on the Doullens – Arras Road, August 1918, which captures so much of the pointless pathos of the war that it has become rightfully iconic – and chillingly at odds with the painter’s sometimes impatiently clinical first reactions to his surroundings when he went to see the war:
“In this Somme country I have seen what I wanted, roads crammed with troops on the march. It is the finest spectacle the war affords, as far as I can make out, and I must try that for my picture. I have wasted a lot of time going to [the] front trenches. There is nothing to paint there – it is ugly and meagre & cramped, & one only sees one or two men.”
This final volume in the Complete Paintings is thickly populated with men, from formal paintings of the artist’s friends to daringly evocative portraits of naked Bostonian black men (his nude study of Thomas McKellar still retains the power to stun) to his faster and more impressionistic sketches of men in various states of unguarded relaxation. As with any catalog of Sargent’s later work, the paintings almost continuously surprise, both with their iconoclastic subject matter and their impressionistic execution. And now those later, last paintings take their place alongside the whole of the artist’s work at the far end of the wide, beguiling shelf holding this definitive edition of Sargent’s work. It’s an amazing accomplishment, for all that it’ll be a bit melancholy not to see a new volume every other year.