Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885 – 1886, Tate)

One can always trust Prettejohn to deliver, as she does in Interpreting Sargent. [1] Whilst this book suffers purely from its brevity, the insightful readings, interpretations, and framework are well structured and well considered. As the Tate’s exhibition companion piece the work certainly lends itself to a broad spectrum of exhibition visitors / readers. The book is crammed full of high quality illustrations from the well-known Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885 – 1886, Tate) to the lesser known The Chess Game (1907, Harvard Club of New York) (and they are of a significantly better quality than the garish and misleading colours to be found in the John William Waterhouse catalogue Prettejohn co-authored with Peter Trippi in 2008).

Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, Boston)

From the beginning of Interpreting Sargent Prettejohn presents her argument clearly and concisely: she seeks to reconsider Sargent’s reputation and presents interesting notions for how we can re-engage with his work today. She traces through his reputation as portraitist, ensuring we understand that his reputation hangs between the academic and avant-garde – neither label fitting him particularly well. Tutored under the alla prima style of Carolus-Duran, his style embraces fluid paint strokes and carries with it an energy that is laced with a touch of Velazquez but also speaks of the more conventional solid modelling of the old masters. For some critics Sargent is a traditionalist who flirts with modern styles, whilst for others who ‘is a modernist who mitigates the radicalism of his style so that it can appeal to mass audiences, a populariser or vulgariser of avant-garde methods’.[2] Both positions are essentially non-committal and therefore Sargent seems to evade or elude easy analysis or categorisation. There are of course possible reasons for his polarity of styles: Sargent was after all better travelled, more cosmopolitan and perhaps even more ‘European’ than most of the artists working at that time. His The Hotel Room (1906 – 1907, Private Collection) is an indicator of this travelling nomadic existence but gives away very little of his inner life. In reality we seem to know very little about Sargent the man: we know he was never married and Prettejohn does consider the veiled but inconclusive suggestion that Sargent may have been gay, but at this distance such inconclusive conversations do little to progress consideration of his art.

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Sargent, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1883, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).

More importantly, Sargent was well versed with the old masters and his skill allowed him to easily pastiche a Degas, produce sunlight Venetian watercolours, whilst also toying with the dissolving brushstrokes of Velazquez, as seen in his Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1883, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). Sargent was not a cohesive or conventional portraitist; Prettejohn shows us how his figures are frequently posed or sat ill at-ease, looking as if they may fall off their seat, or may break their pose suddenly. His figures often slant and take up unusual positions within the canvas, for example The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, Boston) conveys a sense of dislocation between the sisters whereas Mrs Charles Thursby (1897- 1898, Newark Museum, New Jersey) appears askew, even dislocated herself. Such slanted or diagonal figures seems to have been a conscious decision when you compare a photograph of Sargent (1880 – 1883, Private Collection) alongside Manet’s Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (1876, Musee d’Orsay).

Sargent (1880 – 1883, Private Collection)
Manet, Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (1876, Musee d’Orsay)

But Sargent was doing more than just recording mere likenesses in his portraits as Prettejohn demonstrates via her commentary and interpretation of Sargent’s Lord Ribblesdale portrait (1902, National Gallery). Rather than seeing the painting as a non-committal approach to portraiture, Prettejohn suggests it is feasible to interpret it as a perceptive recording of shifting social status, even going so far as to suggest the work captures a moment of social decline for the aristocracy. Her use of Reynolds, Commodore Augustus Keppel (1752 – 1753, National Maritime Museum) is both informative and incisive.

Prettejohn’s writing is always a pleasure to read because of her capacity to deduce, convey and push forward through old staid art historical reasoning. As the introduction’s subtitle ‘On the Brink of Modernity’ suggests, Prettejohn presents and considers ‘the splendour and aplomb of Sargent’s painting technique’ as one which has blinded critics in the past.[3] This book is a suggestion that we should not permit Sargent’s ‘technical facility to dictate facile interpretations of his painting’ but rather we should embrace his technical mastery and consider re-engaging with his portraits as a record of the upper class in transition. We should also acknowledge his capacity and vision for moving from open-air naturalism through Orientalism to Whistlerian suggestiveness…with no sense of his ever changing gear.[4]

Sargent, detail from Fumee d’Ambre Gris (1880, Clarke Institute)

[1] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent (London: Tate Publishing, 1998)

[2] Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent, pg. 11

[3] Prettejohn, pg. 7

[4] Prettejohn, pg.13