Madeleine Emerald Thiele

Sargent the ‘impressionist’

Sargent, Self Portrait (1906, Uffizi)

John Singer Sargent’s reputation has been subject to much debate and criticism since the beginning of the twentieth century. Roger Fry described John Singer Sargent’s work as ‘feeble and emasculated Impressionism’, Walter Sickert talked about ‘Sargentology’ and it was only in the 1970s when his great grand-nephew released some of Sargent’s correspondence that new interpretations and critical attention was given to Sargent’s vast output of work.

Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889, Tate)

Dr. Liz Renes’ talk challenged the old fashioned accusations about Sargent’s art practice and suggested his work could be more meaningfully interpreted or analysed if it was considered through the utilisation of the impression, or rather of capturing fleeting impressions, essentially of being an impressionist – only with a small ‘I’. As the Tate says ‘From the late 1870s Sargent was amongst those artists trained in Paris who made Impressionism an international style, blended with the technique and attitudes of old masters such as Velasquez’.[1]

Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885?, Tate)

In order to preface her talk, Renes gave some context to Sargent’s life and background. Sargent was born to a doctor from Boston although the oldest of the children had died. Sargent himself was followed by two more children. The family wandered around Europe, and although extremely cosmopolitan in his attitudes, Sargent’s background was nevertheless a little unconventional. He was an exceptional pianist and reader, and his mother was a watercolourist who seemed to encourage her son’s art practice.

Sargent, The Piazzetta, Venice (1904, Tate)

Sargent attended the Academy of Florence for a while and then in 1874, he headed for Paris. He was not passive in befriending people and very determinedly went out to be known, to make friends, presumably a lack of shyness brought about by his many excursions throughout Europe. Whilst in Paris, Sargent studied with Carolus Duran, and his bohemian and artistic circle soon grew. He liked music and became close friends with Wagner’s mother.

Sargent, A Dream of Lohengrin (1890, San Francisco)

Sargent listened to Lohengrin, he read Walter Pater and Théophile Gauthier, and eventually moved to London where he lived in Tithe St. as neighbour to Oscar Wilde. It was here that Sargent introduced Comte de Montesquiou to Whistler. Sargent was hugely influential in these connections and relationships, he contributed much to the network of people being truly European in his life and attitudes.

Sargent became extremely good friends with Vernon Lee. Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of the writer Violet Paget (1856-1935) who was best known for her books on Italian Renaissance art (and thus familiar with Pater’s writing). Sargent and Lee had known each other since they were young when each family lived in Nice, and they were to remain friends throughout their lives. This 1881 sketch of Lee from the Tate is an example of the type of impressionism Renes was drawing out; it was done in a single sitting which lasted only three hours. The free brush work adds ambiguity to a woman who toyed with gender and stereotypes in a patriarchal world, and is a wonderful example of Sargent’s charismatic fleeting impressionistic style.

Sargent, Vernon Lee (1881, Tate)

Lee wrote that Sargent avoided ugliness and one only has to look at his many works to see that is true. His work was a distinct contrast to English art, in part because of its French overtones and impressionistic zeal.

Impressionism where nothing was beautiful and everything useful was ugly. Morris, Swinburne and Pater all sought to overturn the British attitude that anything useful couldn’t be beautiful and in doing so helped create (or at least respond to) the growing wave of Aestheticism. For Renes Aestheticism was connected to Impressionism, the feeling or finding of the beautiful (the main characteristic of beauty being its fleeting nature: a most Wildean tenet).

Morris, Swinburne and Pater all sought to overturn the British attitude that anything useful couldn’t be beautiful and in doing so helped create (or at least respond to) the growing wave of Aestheticism. For Renes Aestheticism is connected to Impressionism, the feeling or finding of the beautiful (the main characteristic of beauty being its fleeting nature: a most Wildean tenet).

Sargent’s art training involved lots of drawing from life models, copying old masters etc. He had a Veronese eye and to say no to the Old Masters was blasphemy. But how to link the old with the new? For Sargent using the impression not only linked the past with the present, e.g. Velazquez and his own work, but linked the present with the present, e.g. Impressionism with Aestheticism or rather vice versa. Viewed in this way, one can see how the impression is the foundation to Aestheticism, for it underpins and makes plausible the reach of Aestheticism, by trying to see what an object really is (see Arnold and Pater on this) and using the first impression as a means of unlocking the spiritual and the physical. Lee described Sargent as ‘extremely serious’, remarking that he went in for ‘art for art’s own sake’. Sargent also recorded that he took part in this intellectual and artistic exploration although Renes suggested his investment in Impressionism was perhaps a little half-hearted, preferring to frame his dabble as being a ‘dipped toe into the waters’. Interestingly Sargent’s response to essentially Symbolist works by Burne-Jones was rather negative, he called them ‘messy’. This neither one thing nor the other is what has plague Sargent’s reputation. We cannot place him and we do prefer it when we can measure an artist’s output in clear succinct terms. But we cannot do so with Sargent and thus we are left with someone who never sought to be an Impressionist, a Symbolist nor an Aesthete.

We can discern the boundaries of French Impressionism in his work, and in order to explore that Renes talked about Sargent’s El Jaleo (1881, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).

Sargent, El Jaleo (1881, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

At 2.4 m x 3.48 m. the work is large scale, and was over twice the size of everything else exhibited in the salon that year. The work has feeling rather than form, it captures the spirit and essence of the noise and sweat, of the light and sound, of the dynamism and animated movement of the dancers and the musicians. There were different responses by critics to this work, some said it was sketchy and therefore more Impressionist than Academy, whilst others found it more academic than impressionistic. The Academy was dissuaded by the vigorous brushwork which sweeps itself away. No side claimed this work for their own. It remained beyond them. The impression did not, for the French Impressionists, link to Impressionism.

But the Impressionists were not the first to have such animated brushwork. Enter Velázquez. Compare the brushwork of Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip VI (1631 – 1632, National Gallery) with any of Sargent’s works and the dissoluble paint is evidently recognisable. But there is a triangulation here: Velázquez, Sargent, and Whistler.

Velázquez, detail from Portrait of Philip VI (1631 – 1632, National Gallery)
Sargent, detail from La Carmencita (1890, Musee d’Orsay)

Whistler’s admiration for Velázquez is now legendary: he retorted to an admirer who extolled him and Velázquez in the same breath: “Why drag Velázquez into it?” Whistler’s own retinal impression of fireworks recalls not only Velázquez’s brushwork but Sargent’s also, and each recall the concept of the impression.

Whistler omits the parts of picture he does not wish to make important, whereas Sargent utilises them. In El Jaleo, Sargent captures the impression of a gypsy dance. He twinned modernity with subjective impressions, a ghostly enemy of ennui.

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

Pater and Baudelaire’s writing can be detected in one of Sargent’s most impressive and Velazquez-like paintings, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, MFA). Pater and Baudelaire have specific ways of writing about the ‘aesthetic child’: awe and wonder appear in Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life. The Child, ‘man child’, is always drunk. Nothing is stale. This is the essence of Baudelaire’s modernité, which refers to the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis. For Baudelaire, art had a responsibility to capture this ephemerality, which is particularly pertinent to the state of childhood, the brief but pure child state. A child does not determine between quality or beauty, a child is indifferent. Wilde suggests a child tests ugliness before they know why, and before they discern beauty. It is memory which in turn creates beauty. A child is free and pure, is in a state of Tabula Rasa until the development of a child’s soul overtakes this state. Gautier writes about the utilitarianism of a child. A child is beautiful in themselves because of their youth, but this is based upon their pure state, before they become tarnished.

Memory and the brightly coloured impressions of life first build a child and then disassemble it from its state of purity. Baudelaire accesses his own impression of the pure child state in his writing about the aesthetic child, and in his writing about the ephemerality of modernity.

Sargent, Blue case detail from The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, MFA)

Pater does similar in The Child in the House (1878). In this story, Pater describes blue china vases, which are key to the Sargent work and were very personal to the Boit family. Boit’s four daughters are variously positioned on Sargent’s large square canvas, and we are looking at the process of their disassembly, we are watching the youngest through to the oldest. We see the indifference, through to the self-conscious. The fixed gaze of the smallest child is there as she amasses new information and raw material of the world around her, she is not phased by protocol or etiquette. She is experiencing a pure sensory process, concerned only with looking. But each of the other girls, progressively older, is less fixed in their gaze.

Sargent, Youngest daughter from The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, MFA)

Children during the nineteenth century should not challenge you with their gaze, they should not determine their look directly at you. But the little ‘aesthetic child’ does because she does not discern what her look may mean. She is the cocoon from which, one day, the child will emerge into the adult world. Just as her sisters are at various stages of emerging from their chrysalises.

Such works did not appeal to the British public, who found the works too beastly, too ‘French’. Surprisingly though, the one work most people now know of Sargent’s is Carnation Lily, Lily Rose (1885 – 1886, Tate). The title comes from the song ‘The Wreath’, by the eighteenth century operatic composer Joseph Mazzinghi, which was popular in the 1880s. Sargent and his circle frequently sang around the piano at Broadway, in keeping with his Wagnerian love. The refrain of the song asks the question ‘Have you seen my Flora pass this way?’ to which the answer is ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’. This work entered into the Chantrey Bequest in 1887, largely at the insistence of Sir Frederic Leighton. The picture was both acclaimed and decried at the R.A. exhibition of the same year. The image was immediately within the displayed collection and the Lily and the Sunflower were, according to Wilde, ‘the most naturally adapted to art’.
They were the Children in pre-industrial Britain, contained within a safe bubble of flowers, where we, the tarnished adults, are not allowed to participate.

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

In order to create this effect, Sargent sought for the impression. According to Edmund Gosse, Sargent instantly ‘took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time, rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only, with equal suddenness, to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then, while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis’.[2]

Sargent used aesthetic colour or as one critic wrote ‘polychromatic aberration’ to create his light effects, but he moved between the dark palette of Velázquez and his own designated lighter palette for works when required, e.g. The Oyster Gatherers (1878, MFA, Boston). This lovely work recalls the temperature of the day, the breeze in the air, and the cool sand beneath the feet. The palette moves without the retinal memory having been disturbed, it merely triggers the interior memory of the untainted child.

Sargent, The Oyster Gatherers (1878, MFA, Boston)

The vibrant colour of works like Samuel Pozzi (1881, Armand Collection) also trigger sense memory within the viewer, although this is entirely without the purity of the child.

But when one turns to other emblematic works like Madame X (1883–1884, Met), one realises the deliberate limitation of Sargent’s palette. This work, and others of its ilk, employ limited blacks and / or whites e.g. whilst Madame X opts for black tones, Fumee d’Ambre Gris (1880, Clark Institute) utilises creamy whites. Fumee d’Ambre Gris is a pure colour study, and acts as a precursor to abstraction, where colour is distilled down to a falling Whistler rocket, or to Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White (1859).

Vernon wondered why colour has no morality, and although we may prescribe white as being bridal, this was a twentieth century invention, not a Victorian one. For Whistler white was not bridal. In 1881, whilst in Geneva, Sargent wrote how he understood the ‘Distinction of having introduced a practice which might become clear to those with refined taste’. In particular this was about Fumee but it could equally apply to many of his works.

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

Madame X was done mainly for its deployment of colour. Sargent chased Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau, down and hounded her to sit for him. She powdered herself and hennaed her hair. Her ear remains red (perhaps through the henna?) but her deportment beautiful. Virginie remains aloof; she was, after all, a created beauty, one which excited Sargent to paint her lavender skin. She was likened to a decomposed corpse or a statue, but not of a living woman. She was however, symphonic, she was a blanc majeure. ‘The white of her matchless skin’ was classical, recalling statues and vampires. Through the act of this painting, Sargent (and Virginie) were both self-fashioning, they were artificial. Sargent’s work was always self-conscious, always fleeting, and always impressionistic.

Sargent, Madame X (1883–1884, Met)

‘And now there is an end on’t? an end of his abundant, superbly vitalized production; but of his influence there is no end that can be perceptible to us. Velasquez and Frans Hals, Pope Innocent in the Doria palace, the banqueters of Haarlem, are as dominating today as in their own past; more so, since they address a wider audience. Will Sargent’s legend grow as this has grown? Probably, since his work is robust and subtle at once, sanitary and absolutely characteristic of the time he lived in’.[3]