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 suffering should not automatically be equated with merit, and that contemporary popular success is not of itself a guarantee of mediocrity. Nevertheless, when writing about an artist who was in his own day widely thought of as “the greatest, not only of living English portrait painters, but of all English portrait painters” (the words are Coventry Patmore’s), one is almost overwhelmingly tempted to try to suggest both that Sargent’s main strength lay in other fields and also that there must have been some dark and hidden side to his character which was not understood by those who adulated him. Even now it is difficult for us to admit that Sargent can have been an extremely serious and talented painter whose highest imaginative gifts were engaged by sitters who, for the most part, appear to have been rich, vacuous, and arrogant.
It has, after all, been fruitful to look for the informal and uncharacteristic note in the work of his contemporaries. His own master Carolus Duran, for instance, painted sketches, intimate portraits, and occasional subject pieces with a spontaneous freshness and delicacy that is almost invariably lacking not only in his own more elaborate pictures but in the entire output of his famous pupil. But when Sargent painted his close friend and admirer Henry James he turned him into a prosperous bank manager, and (for me at least) the Venetian views, architectural studies, and vaguely Impressionist landscapes which he painted for his own pleasure are labored and dispiriting.
The realm over which Sargent ruled with real mastery is enclosed, oppressive, and stuffy. The brilliant sunlight that proved such an inspiration to Monet, whom he much admired, tends with him to become garish and to make his pictures seem floundering and awkward. With a very few exceptions—An Interior in Venice, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife—his finest pictures are his most formal ones. “The Private World of John Singer Sargent”—the title given to an exhibition held in a number of American museums a few years ago—proves, on exploration, to be disappointing, and though we may be fairly certain that his English contemporaries exaggerated his merits, they were surely right to go on demanding from him portraiture in the grand manner—in spite of his increasing reluctance to satisfy them and his longing to produce something that he felt to be more worthy of his ambitions. This is not the only occasion on which we may be thankful for the vanity of the English and their distrust of “history painting,” for whereas the large-scale decorations in Boston are unlikely to be resurrected, the portrait of Lord Ribblesdale remains one of the most powerful images of aristocratic authority and elegance to survive from the second half of the nineteenth century.
One of Mr. Ormond’s very great merits in his excellent and beautifully illustrated book is that he is ready to face Sargent’s painting directly on its own terms, and does not make of it either a neglected precursor of some current fashion or a slightly ludicrous yet touching memento of that vanished golden age before 1914. He has uncovered much new material, he writes with clarity, and his judgments are carefully reasoned and eminently fair: “Whatever the social overtones of Sargent’s English portraits—and it is the implications of snobbery that constitute the chief barrier to a just appreciation of their qualities—his style achieves its apotheosis after 1890.” Ormond’s well-chosen plates fully endorse this view, and his careful analyses of the principal works, his discussion of the sources, and his appraisal of the little that we know of Sargent as a man constitute by far the best study of this artist that has so far appeared. What is perhaps missing is some historical background against which to gauge the measure of his achievement.
“Il n’y a d’autre portrait possible en France que le portrait bourgeois,” wrote a critic not long after the Revolution of 1830, and he and many other writers at this time hoped that some middle-class equivalent could be found for the royal, aristocratic, and military portraits that had been painted with such success by Van Dyck, Rigaud, Reynolds, Gros, and Lawrence. There were promising signs that the bourgeois himself might welcome what the critics demanded so imperiously on his behalf. As early as 1831 the Duchesse de Dino was surprised to find at her London dinner table “three gentlemen from Arras, recommended to us by the Baron de Talleyrand, Frenchmen de ceux qui s’appellent de la classe moyenne, à laquelle ils se font gloire d’appartenir….”
Soon after, Ingres began his epoch-making portrait of Monsieur Bertin, director of the Journal des Débats—a picture that was immediately taken to symbolize the bourgeoisie which had done well out of the Revolution. The portrait has subsequently appeared on the dust jacket of virtually every book dealing with the reign of Louis-Philippe. M. Bertin seems to have liked the portrait, but his daughter claimed that “mon père avait l’air d’un grand seigneur; Ingres en a fait un gros fermier,” and it was with her that potential sitters (rather than the critics) agreed. However much the bourgeois gloried in his class, he did not want to look like this, and the picture remains a unique masterpiece.
In fact during the middle years of the nineteenth century there was a striking merger of the classes—on canvas, if not in reality. Symbols of opulence were common enough, but few artists made much attempt to convey an impression of social status through the medium of pose or characterization. It is true that as late as 1842, Ingres could, by basing himself on sixteenth-century prototypes, portray the Duc d’Orléans in a pose that would have been inconceivable had his subject not belonged to the very highest ranks of society. But his extreme reluctance to paint portraits and the agonies he imposed on his sitters made him quite unsuitable for the role that society tried to press upon him. Moreover, the work of his pupils, though often striking, was too idiosyncratic to have wide appeal. In spite of the Revolution, in spite of the critics, the bourgeois portrait was clearly not what the rich were looking for—and the rich, like the poor, are always with us.
The gap was filled by Winterhalter, who soon won an international reputation and by the end of his life had painted most of the royal and aristocratic families of Europe. Winterhalter belonged essentially to the rather cozy Central European tradition that is usually called Biedermeier. His reasonably accomplished and charming style was well suited to the courts of Queen Victoria, Louis-Philippe, and the German princelings, but was manifestly strained to its limits with the emergence of the far more opulent and ostentatious “nobility” that surrounded Napoleon III and Eugenie. Nonetheless, his portraits, though mannered and repetitious, are generally pretty, and convey an impression of fluttering flirtatiousness that proved enormously popular.
Winterhalter had many rivals and successors (the problem of fashionable portraiture still needs to be studied), but although his activity virtually ceased with the Second Empire, it is not until the appearance on the scene of Sargent, a full generation later, that we come across an entirely new style of society protraiture which was both acceptable to his contemporaries and of interest to us today. The differences between the two artists are striking—as well as between the societies they depicted. It is true that Sargent, a far more talented painter than Winterhalter, painted the English nobility toward the end of his career, but he was never employed by royalty and was never much of a success in France or elsewhere on the Continent. The cosmopolitan clientèle of Winterhalter was inherited by Sargent’s friend Boldini, and in an infinitely more lively, sophisticated, and insinuating style Boldini gave to the beau monde of the Third Republic the flimsiness and chic that Winterhalter had given to that of the Second Empire.
Sargent, however, is not chic. His figures are haughty, grand, and charmless; the very folds of his sitters’ clothes are as hard and cold as they are dashing. His approach reverses the previous course of society portraiture in England. When, two and a half centuries earlier, Van Dyck settled in London, he painted the nobility with a carefree grace and insouciance that is lacking in his stiffer and more grandiose portraits of the Italian nobility, and this example has been fostered by artists, both English and foreign, ever since.
Sargent, however, was called upon to do something new, and—although he was well aware of the English tradition—he departed from it in significant ways that owe much to his study of El Greco, Velazquez, Hals, and his French contemporaries. On the one hand, his clients were rich Jewish and American financiers whose newly acquired status in society had to be proclaimed with an emphasis that would have been looked upon as unseemly by the more established ruling class of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century England; on the other, they consisted of genuinely old families (such as the Marlboroughs) trying to shore up their already precarious positions by marrying American heiresses and selling off their valuables. In both cases a reassuring ostentation was called for, but it is with the former class of patrons that he was more successful.
This is partly because Sargent always seems to have responded to power more than to elegance: he is rare among fashionable portraitists in having produced more impressive images of men than of women. The fact that he (like Reynolds) never married may be linked in some way with the nature of his art, though Mr. Ormond, who belongs to his family and has had access to private papers, gives us no reason for assuming that this is the case. The nouveaux-riches had other advantages: although they were among the most enthusiastic collectors of eighteenth-century pictures, whose loose, rapid brush strokes had such an appeal for Sargent, they did not actually own family portraits with which he was required to match his own. Besides, he seems to have found in the Jews that strangeness and color which had fascinated him ever since his visit to North Africa. William Rothenstein records in his Memoirs that he “thoroughly enjoyed painting the energetic features of the men and the exotic beauty of the women of the Semitic race. He urged me to paint Jews, as being at once the most interesting models and the most reliable patrons.”
This characteristic combination of shrewdness and romance might have appealed to Gauguin (“I don’t admire the picture, but I admire the man”); it is surely the only attitude to life that both artists shared after they went their separate ways. This comes to mind after reading Professor Andersen’s interesting and ambitious book. It is also a difficult book, and to determine its value a critic would need to be thoroughly familiar not only with all the intricacies of Gauguin’s symbolism (which alone has been the subject of intense debate among scholars over the last few years) but also with psychoanalytical theory. Although a number of art historians have recently been trying to use psychoanalytic methods, the territory is still hazardous and the first thing that needs to be said about Professor Andersen’s achievement is that he scrambles over it with infectious confidence. As a course of seminars Gauguin’s Paradise Lost must have been fascinating and it has been transformed with much skill into a coherent book.
Yet it is not altogether easy to see what Professor Andersen is driving at. “Legend,” he begins, “ascribes the flowering of genius in Paul Gauguin neither to industry nor to heredity but to mutation—an internal act of God which transformed a solid Parisian stockbroker overnight into an anguished artist-in-exile.” This raises an Aunt Sally which can be knocked down with too much ease. Serious writers on Gauguin—and there have been a great many since The Moon and Sixpence gave the legend wide currency—have never denied the part played in Gauguin’s life by industry and heredity, and no one believes that he was transformed into an artist “overnight.” But not even the most careful reading of Professor Andersen’s book “dispels at last the romantic haze surrounding Gauguin’s life and career” (to quote the publishers). Gauguin’s transformation from stockbroker to artist remains as mysterious as ever.
Professor Andersen tells us that
…the making of the myth lies not so much in distorting the facts as in rallying them round a prefabricated core—construed with manic single-mindedness they make obeisance to a single great truth before which the collected small truths wave and undulate. In Gauguin’s case, the core was his consuming artistic commitment, his own true self, which external circumstances conspired to cripple….
But I confess that I do not fully grasp the distinction he is trying to make here between myth and truth nor do I find it elucidated in his pages on Gauguin’s early career.
Nevertheless, it can justifiably be claimed that Professor Andersen’s approach is an entirely new, interesting, and legitimate one, whatever doubts may remain about some of his conclusions. It is a very long time indeed since any fully qualified art historian has written a biography of Gauguin, though there have of course been countless monographs—of varying value—on aspects of his work (by Wildenstein, Rookmaaker, Gray, Bodelsen, and others) and lives written by nonspecialists (such as Perruchot and Danielsson). Indeed, it has become rare for art historians to venture seriously into the field of biography, and hence the lives of artists tend to be written by authors who can tell us everything about them except what mattered most to them and matters most to us.
Professor Anderson naturally understands these problems and his comments on Gauguin manage to be both uncensorious and often illuminating. It also needs to be said that the difficulties of his book only rarely spring from his indulgence in jargon, but arise rather from the inherently complex psychological problems that he discusses. On the other hand, by concentrating so heavily on the way in which Gauguin worked out his sexual problems, Professor Andersen raises fully as many problems as he appears to solve, and in many cases it seems to me that valuable ground has been lost in the attempt.
There has, for instance, been much discussion in recent years on the question of how much the mythology that is to be found in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings can have sprung from stories that were still current when he arrived in the South Seas and how much was reconstructed by him on the basis of what earlier travel writers had described. For Professor Andersen, however, the main lines of Gauguin’s inner development were laid out well before he left France, and it is to this development alone that he is prepared to relate the pictures.
In a famous letter, for example, Gauguin describes how he came back one night to find his young mistress “immobile, naked, lying stomach downward on the bed, with her eyes inordinately large with fear,” and how, inspired by this, he painted one of his most magnificent pictures, The Spirit of the Dead Watches (in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), for, as he elaborates, it was by such a spirit, a Tupapaü, that the girl had been frightened. Commentators have tended to discuss whether at this stage in history, after many years’ indoctrination by missionaries, Tahitian girls still believed in legends of this kind. For Professor Andersen this question is irrelevant. For him the picture is related neither to the girl’s fears, real or imaginary, nor to Tahitian mythology, but exclusively to Gauguin’s own life. “The image of the old hooded woman, that unlikely specter, has a long history in Gauguin’s work,” he begins, and he links her to what he takes to be the artist’s obsession with innocence and evil, virginity and seduction.
Elsewhere, he first reports Gauguin’s comment on another great painting, The Moon and the Earth (Museum of Modern Art, New York)—“It was an ancient legend which the young girls love to tell in the evening”—and then continues as follows: “Perhaps so, but the concept behind it is native to Gauguin as well as to the local culture: his interpretations of Tahitian theology were derived from his own history, not Tahiti’s, and it is not surprising that most of his dabblings in the Tahitian pantheon concerned the division of spirit and substance—male and female.”
These passages give a good indication of Professor Andersen’s approach: he sticks very closely to the artist himself, and, to those not fully familiar with psychoanalytical theory or convinced of its validity, his ideas may well appear fanciful and overassured. For instance, when writing about the Jacob Wrestling with the Angel in Edinburgh, Professor Andersen elaborates as follows: “The popular reading of this painting casts the women as parishioners awed by the curate’s words into a trance in which the subjects of the sermon appear before them in a vision. In reality [my italics] Gauguin used the theme as a vehicle to point up his active male-passive female polarity….” There are other instances of this sort of writing, but they are not very obtrusive, and this enjoyable book has not only an interesting methodology, but also brings a fresh approach to well-worn problems.
Significantly enough it was the same man, Roger Fry, who (in England at least) was largely responsible for this denouement in both its aspects. His first Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910 showed thirty-six Gauguins, which aroused considerable interest among younger artists and collectors. His famous article “J. S. Sargent as Seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition of His Works, 1926, and in the National Gallery” gave the coup de grâce to Sargent’s reputation as a major painter. ↩