Resisting the Modern
John Singer Sargent Watercolors
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
October 13, 2013 – January 20, 2014
John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) reputation today largely rests on his body of work in portraiture. Generally considered technically impressive but artistically shallow, these depictions are mostly produced in a familiar classical style reminiscent of the old masters, like Goya and Velasquez. Despite Sargent’s startlingly prolific output, his wide-ranging experimentation with watercolors has gone comparatively neglected, overshadowed by the more conspicuously modern creations of his professional peers. Sargent is rarely accorded the same respect as contemporaries such as Matisse or Picasso, let alone fellow American Winslow Homer. Writing in 1900, the art critic Robert Fry concisely captured Sargent’s under-appreciation, classifying him as more a “professional” than a “poet,” driven by careerist ambition rather than creative courage.
But thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts’ “John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors”, a sprawling new exhibit of nearly 100 pieces, there has never been a better time to reconsider Sargent’s rich and complex legacy. The exhibit is a joint effort between the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which made separate acquisitions of Sargent’s watercolors after they were enthusiastically received in both London and New York. In 1909, the Brooklyn Museum purchased 83 of Sargent’s pieces for $20,000 (approximately $500,000 in today’s dollars); in 1912, the Museum of Fine Arts grabbed 45 of them for $10,800. Reluctant to make either sale, Sargent insisted these collections be sold en bloc or not at all, and still stubbornly held onto three to which he was particularly attached.
Despite great critical and commercial success churning out portraits, Sargent had grown weary of the medium’s gilded tethers. By the time he had turned to watercolors at the turn of the century, he could easily afford to paint without a secured commission, free from the intrusive instruction of patrons. Sargent also learned the hard way that portraiture was risky business. In 1884, he painted a portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, now widely known as “Madame X”. He captured her displaying what was at the time considered immodest decollete; including one strap fallen off her shoulder proved doubly improvident. The scandal that ensued nearly ended his career and compelled him to move from Paris to London. Sargent never regretted the painting itself; in 1915 he confessed: “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”
The Museum of Fine Arts has done an extraordinary job curating a collection that showcases the experimental arc of Sargent’s career. Employing both opaque and translucent paints at a time when the former was rarely used in watercolor works, he was able to produce shimmering portrayals of light . In “Boboli” (1900), one of a series devoted to the Italian gardens Sargent knew from childhood, a sculpture of Igea, Greek goddess of health, stands tall draped under shadow, but speckled with refulgent light. The contrapuntal dynamism between sun and shade, and the bleeding of edges that leans toward but resists fully committing to Impressionism, required virtuosic, surgical skill.
And Sargent’s demurral of abstraction’s advances was in the service of an artistic realism, even after that philosophical ideal had become increasingly conflated with unphilosophical naivete. For Sargent, realism meant a fidelity to intelligible representation, to the notion of art as the articulate conveyance of an identifiable tableau or comprehensible human experience. He preserved an understanding of art as effective communication and never betrayed a painting’s subject matter in order to mint a new stylistic coin. His formula for art is almost journalistic: “I do not judge. I only chronicle.”
Still, Sargent certainly did experiment, not limited by his realism to photographic accuracy or some Aristotelian ideal of the mimetic representation of nature. Sometimes, his watercolors even flirt aggressively with abstraction. “Mountain Fire” (1906-7) provides an Alpine view through a miasma of smoke and steam, the hazy effect created by adding opaque white pigment to the washes and allowing the borders to bleed into each other. Still, this is a coquettish wink at abstraction rather than a full blown embrace; Sargent’s adventures in modernism always seem to be chastened by a devotion to realistic perspective.
Sargent was fixated on perfecting the quality of light in all its manifestations: direct, shooting opalescently through cloud and darkness, or reflecting lambently off water and hard surfaces. “All’Ave Maria” (1902-4), a view of the church and school of Santo Spirito, captures the radiant daylight as it strikes the stark white pigment of the church building’s facade. While in Venice, it was not unusual for Sargent to hire a gondola to seek out new locales to paint, or even for him to paint from one. In this case he uncharacteristically chose much looser brushstrokes, eschewing any underdrawing. The human figures are dream-like, represented as amorphous silhouettes, not entirely consonant with but neither a sharp departure from his signature realism.
And herein lies the key to comprehending Sargent’s notable under-appreciation today. The prevailing assessment lauds him as a talented martinet of technique but criticizes his lack of creativity, anodyne pictorial choices, and philosophical superficiality. His paintings, however expertly produced, make for excellent postcards. To make matters worse, Sargent never unabashedly enlisted on the side of bohemianism; instead, he traveled across Europe with an entourage of family and friends, painting high society women and gorgeous landscapes, a lifestyle that was somehow peripatetic but also bourgeois. In short, Sargent was aware of the stylistic move towards modernism but intransigently resisted its full charms.
It has become de rigueur to interpret Sargent’s refusal to follow the trend away from realism as a reflection of a soul torn between artistic integrity and the longing for wealth and material success. Even an admiring biographer like Trevor Fairbrother saw the fundamental pull within Sargent between “his middle-class need for approval and conventional acclaim” and his yearning to for artistic originality. In Fairbrother’s view, now the general scholarly consensus, Sargent’s proletarian interests precluded him from being “supportive of the liberating and transgressive spirit of modernism.”
But, at the very least, this is a historically suspect analysis since it overlooks the fact that many of Sargent’s contemporaries did, in fact, think of his work as wildly transgressive, even imprudent. In fact, especially in the 1880’s, much of the French Academy considered Sargent’s work downright outré. Writing in 1914, John W. Alexander noted that the “revelation that New York received from the work of Sargent was quite as sensational in its time as the revelation it received from any of the Cubists and the Futurists … Sargent’s amazing technical fluency, which we now take for granted, though some of our more advanced painters now profess to consider it valueless, was then believed to be recklessly unconventional.”
The misinterpretation of Sargent’s originality is symptomatic of a larger problem rooted in the familiar and self-aggrandizing notion of “transgressiveness.” It’s never clear how to parse the boundary between convention and its transcendence, and often what counts today as iconoclastic is merely pretentious. The prevailing tendency seems to be the interpretation of any artistic restraint as a failure of erotic nerve, as if the ultimate crescendo of artistic authenticity is pornographic abandon. But consider the subterranean seductiveness of the lone female dancer in “El Jaleo: Danse des Gitanes” (1882) or the mesmeric stare of the hauntingly beautiful woman portrayed in “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892). At least partly, the galvanic power of the erotic in these works is a direct function of the artist’s deft restraint, exciting the imagination by denying it facile satisfaction. It’s impossible to square the bracing beauty, even exoticism of these works with Fry’s lacerating judgment of Sargent: “Wonderful indeed, but most wonderful that this wonderful performance should ever have been confused with that of an artist.”
The controversy generated by the infamous “Madame X” is also a complex but instructive example of Sargent’s simmering sensualism and how it is characteristically misunderstood. The imbroglio was over a single, fallen shoulder strap, thought to be so pruriently suggestive that one French critic complained that it “betrayed the inviolability of the bodice.” Sargent placated his detractors by repainting the strap, thereby restoring Madame Pierre Gautreau’s chaste respectability. Fairbrother specifically cites this case of evidence of Sargent’s intestinal timorousness, claiming that his concession “demonstrated an immediate and overwhelming desire to placate authority.”
However, the unsettling, even dark, carnality of the painting remained unrevised, an unvarnished depiction of her prideful exhibitionism. Sargent’s subject is clearly doused in a white cosmetic powder, giving her a ghostly pallor. Another painter, Marie Bashkirtseff, noted that her skin has the “tone of a corpse,” and that the finished product, while “horrible in daylight,” is a “great success of curiosity.” Sargent repaired the errant shoulder strap but left as is Gautreau’s funereal pomposity, her morbid sexuality. His Puritanical detractors completely missed the true source of the painting’s subversiveness. And so did those who criticized him on behalf of enlightened libertinism. Sargent’s harshest critic, Walter Sickert, concisely summed up the now common rationale for criticizing his revision of Gautreau’s portrait: “I need not labor the truth, with which I have already dealt, that the work of the modern, fashionable portrait-painter has to be considered as, in a sense, a collaboration, a compromise between what the painter would like to and what the employer will put up with. Mr. Sargent, who has an acute sense of, and keen delight in character, has no wish to compromise more than he need.” Sickert’s point, tucked within his characteristic sarcasm, was that Sargent was still willing to compromise plenty.
For all the fuss over transgressive liberation, the soi disant arbiters of modern artistic progress often end up painfully parochial. Underwriting this historical self-congratulation is a naively linear account of progress, making every new fashion the latest incarnation of true creativity. All but the most contemporary museum collections become mausoleums, tony graveyards for yesteryear’s failed attempts at beauty. One might think the strident confidence with which these standards are pronounced would be chastened by how often and quickly they change. The sum result is a long list of realist painters who typically emerge from oblivion only in a digressive footnote. Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, and Robert Henri are good examples of groundbreaking painters too often overlooked and under-appreciated because of their unalloyed allegiance to realism.
While “John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors” is a curatorial achievement of the highest order, the organization of the collection only reinforces this modernist prejudice. The expansive exhibit, despite the dizzying diversity of its offerings, is singularly obsessed with Sargent’s scrupulous attention to technique. Some paintings are paired with a miniature screen showing a video tutorial on the different methods Sargent employed to gain his desired effects. While the videos are too small to be truly obtrusive and are often edifying, Sargent’s risk-taking adventurism is short-changed. Of course, he was a tireless student of technique. His repertoire was broad and ever-evolving: graphite underdrawing, wet subtraction, wax resist, conte crayon, etc.; Sargent was an insatiable connoisseur of artistic method. However, the mastery of technique itself was, for Sargent, a profoundly creative enterprise. He was suspicious of modernism but not artistic progress.
Sargent’s talent is a testament to the fact that authentic artistic creativity lies somewhere between the rigor of Cartesian method and spontaneous revelation. This is reminiscent of a passage in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil where he lampoons the then fashionable understanding of artistic inspiration as a fugue-like “letting go,” a surrender to one’s mad muses. Instead, Nietzsche argues, real artistic creation requires that the artist “obeys thousandfold laws” and the experience is closer to self-tyranny than abandon.
Sargent’s watercolor portraits are good examples of the alchemical combination of afflatus and discipline. “A Tramp” (1904-6), aptly named, is essentially a deconstruction of the Edwardian oil portraits that brought him fame and prosperity. Instead of a wealthy patrician, the subject is a weathered transient. Sargent used wet subtraction to make his face seem lacquered with world-weariness, but still manages to discover a quiet dignity. In addition to its masterful composition, “A Tramp” is a provocative commentary on the shifting sands of social class at the commencement of the twentieth century.
This creative obsession with experimentation is also seen in “An Artist in His Studio” (1904), in which Sargent’s friend and fellow painter, Ambrogio Raffele, inhabits a crabbed hotel room doubling as a makeshift atelier. The artist reposefully inspects his work, surrounded by four partially visible paintings, the largest of which is propped up on a table and bed in place of an easel. Both the painter and his work stand in vivid contrast to the vibrant white of the bed linen. Here, Sargent provides us a portal into his own indefatigable labor, constantly sampling new instruments and their uses, traveling ceaselessly in search of new sources of beauty and inspiration. It doesn’t get any more modern, or even post-modern, than meta-narrative.
Of course, the transparency of watercolors makes them ideal for an investigative analysis of an artist’s approach, down to the last brush stroke. A painting can now be disassembled by experts into its elemental parts with the tools gifted by science: x-ray florescence, infrared imaging, ultraviolet radiation, special microscope binoculars. The exhibit provides helpful lessons in all these as well in a station situated at its center. Even at the level of technique, it’s easy to grasp the misguidedness of Fry’s belittling of Sargent’s work as mere “diaries in water-color.”
And pace the charge that Sargent’s choice of subjects can be frivolous, even his more traditional portraits evince an astonishing depth and nuance. His rendering of two young girls, “The Pailleron Children” (1879), is simply chilling. The intensity of their stares, their defiantly aggressive, even scornful eyes, accosts the viewer. It is a daring portrait of infamously rambunctious youths. Oscar Wilde found it horrifying. The mother loved it. Either way, one can see why Henry James considered sitting for a portrait by Sargent “essential to immortality.”
It’s not easy to judge the totality of Sargent’s work, given the massive body of art he left behind. In his 69 years he produced over 600 portraits, 600 landscapes and 1600 watercolors. Such a wilderness of work mortifies easy attempts at neat categorization. For Sargent, ceaseless productivity had the character of religious vocation; engraved on his tombstone is Laborare est orare: “to work is to pray.”
Nevertheless, we should finally settle the issue raised by Fry, whether Sargent must ultimately be included among the “professionals” or the “poets.” He was both and it is a peculiarly modern bias that considers the two mutually exclusive, a consequence of the overwrought distinction between bourgeois and bohemian. An artist is neither simply a hippie nor a yuppie, good news since each is an impoverished caricature of real human life.
The real lesson of this splendid exhibit is not that Sargent was a peerless technician, which could never be in doubt. Rather, the observer will be astonished to learn how much artistic genius necessarily underwrote Sargent’s cultivation of technique as he pondered, was inspired by, but ultimately refused the otherwise irrepressible advances of the modern.
Ivan Kenneally is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.