John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors
Gauguin’s Paradise Lost
As the nineteenth century drew to a close two restless and disappointed artists left Paris to investigate strange societies which had survived from a distant past, and which were to die out in a few years. John Singer Sargent began his regular visits to England in 1886 and before long he settled there as the principal painter of a group of blue-blooded and plutocratic clans whose way of life seems almost stranger to us today than that of the Tahitians who greeted Paul Gauguin when he first set foot in the South Sea islands in 1891. The pictures that resulted from the pilgrimages of the two artists are—however different in quality and approach—the fullest artistic records that we have of these societies, one in which the “noble savage” was not yet a meaningless concept and the other in which the English rich still gloried ostentatiously in their wealth. Now that both savage and rich have been tamed into conformity these pictures have acquired an exoticism even greater than that with which their authors intentionally invested them.
Born within eight years of each other, Gauguin and Sargent shared somewhat similar artistic backgrounds. In Paris both were closely associated with the Impressionists; both were attracted by the folklore of Brittany; and both hankered after the more colorful and primitive scenes that they had known at firsthand in South America and North Africa. They never met, however, and their comments on each other’s ideals are as cool as we would expect. Sargent was prepared to admit that Gauguin was admirable for his “rich and rare color”—but for that alone. Gauguin had nothing to say about Sargent, but he frequently wrote with considerable bitterness about Sargent’s teacher Carolus Duran in words that would have been equally appropriate to the pupil. His most considered judgment on the differences between them was, however, wryly melancholy rather than hostile: “I don’t admire the picture, but I admire the man. He so sure of himself, so calm. Me so uncertain, so anxious.”
Certainly once they had left Paris their careers so sharply diverged that their fates seemed to exemplify, almost as in some morality play, the two extremes likely to await artists during the height of the Belle Epoque. Sargent was lionized and overwhelmed with commissions, and died a rich and honored man. Gauguin dragged out his self-imposed exile in pain and misery, wracked with syphilis and virtually unknown except to a small circle of friends. And then, of course, came the inevitable reversal of fortune—the moment when Cinderella marries her prince and the Ugly Sisters are discomfited, except that, as we are dealing with life rather than with fairy stories, the timing went wrong, and it was not until after their deaths that it became generally accepted that Sargent was a worthless hack and Gauguin one of the martyrs and founding fathers of the modern movement. There matters rested for many years.
We are now better prepared to acknowledge that …