john singer sargent -- 8/19/22

Today's selection -- from Inventing the Modern Artist by Sarah Burns. The great portrait artist John Singer Sargent was criticized as superficial in his art and was thought of as a “society painter” who subsumed the depth of his talent in pursuit of commercial success:
"Unease over how commercial culture affected American civilization was projected onto artistic practice, which served as a space for rehearsing the scenarios of disaster or salvation playing simultaneously on the larger social stage. Artistic materialism came under intense scrutiny in the energetically circulating discourse that disparaged the 'society painter' and exposed his habitat -- the opulently decorated studio -- as a theatrical showroom calculated to sell by deception. In this discourse all of the traits that conspired to arrest true greatness were collected and embroidered to encompass and define a baleful pattern of modern artistic identity, figuring the artist as a meta­phorical skull and crossbones warning against the poisonous influence of luxury and greed. In particular, the links that bound material display to fakery were powerfully drawn.

"There was a real life example in the career of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whose dazzling success at the turn of the century interfered in both subtle and obvious ways with his attainment of unequivocal 'great artist' status, regardless of the skill, taste, and facility that made him such a superb painter. As a portraitist, he could not possibly disguise the economic activity that brought him international fame and a princely income. He produced and sold images of and to his clients, who paid him readily and well. There was extensive disagreement regarding Sargent's abilities to do more than capture mere appearances, but at the same time there was near-universal consensus that he was an artist of little or no imagination or poetic sense, a limitation that confined him to the fascinatingly lively observation and de­piction of facts. This is not to say that Sargent failed to earn his share of praise. But the unconcealed commodity status of his best-known works dragged at his heels.

Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, 1889, by John Singer Sargent

"Royal Cortissoz found Sargent to have 'something of the fecundity and power of the old masters' but wondered whether he would ever 'attain to their rank.' If he fell short it would be because of his 'limitations as a colorist' and 'want of spiritual depth.' In portraiture, he was fascinating, original, splendid, fertile, and intensely superficial: 'He is spectacular, if you like, but there is not a trace of vulgarity in the spectacle .... He is a type of materialism triumphant .... wonderfully refined by intelligence and taste.' At a time when materialism in all its forms seemed to pose a danger to social and cultural life designating one of the foremost portrait painters of the day a materialist, even a superbly refined one, was to praise with a vengeance. There was something about Sargent's very skill that raised suspicions; his work seemed too effortless to be sincere. To Christian Brinton he was was a 'conjurer performing a trick,' a 'magician of the palette,' a 'Paganini of portrai­ture.' Of course his subject matter counted against him. Perhaps if he had specialized in elemental seascapes he would have struck the critics as a more genuine painter. But as someone paid to glamorize and memorialize the well-to-do bodies of the cosmopolitan elites and upper classes, he had difficulty shaking off a reputation as a prodigiously talented faker.

"The Boston Public Library decorations, finally completed in 1925, were an elab­orate attempt to invent another Sargent -- a deep, intellectual, transcendent, philo­sophical one. Although Cortissoz thought that Sargent had gotten 'out of his depth' in attempting the lofty subject of 'Judaism and Christianity,' some found his am­bitious designs admirable and wondered why he had so wasted his time in pursuit of the superficial: 'Has Sargent exchanged his genius for a mess of pottage? What would Sargent have been had he not given himself to promiscuous portraiture? What might he, with his powers, not have accomplished if, from the very beginning, his art were the result of the impetus of ideas and not a surrender to the material considerations of a matter of fact world?' The 'promiscuous' Sargent had prosti­tuted himself, painting material things for material gain at the expense of his higher self. Sargent's reputation suffered greatly under the regime of modernism, and Roger Fry's well-known and severely damaging attack on him in the 1920s only sharpened and summarized the reservations voiced earlier, when critiques of Sargent the ma­terialist, the promiscuous, and the tricky magician summed up everything that made his path a risky one. Although Fry was only one voice among many in the critical chorus, which heaped his work with as much praise as otherwise, it draws a sug­gestive connection between the practice of an outstandingly successful portrait painter and the fictional figure of the society painter, a popular caricature of everything that Sargent seemed to represent, minus his talent. 

"The society painter or society artist was a shallow profiteer and an egregious poseur who lived off the cult of luxury and pretense pervasive among the rich. Painters who circulated in the realm of society and fashion were corrupt almost by definition, because success depended on the mastery of slick sales techniques, prac­ticed on those who lived only for pleasure and for the assertion of status through commodity display. In Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country, Claud Walsingham Popple specializes in the art of flashy, shallow image-making. All that his sitters (exclusively female) ask of a portrait is that the 'costume should be sufficiently "life­like" and the face not too much so.' To entice and entertain his clientele, Popple stages elaborate teas in his 'expensively screened and tapestried studio' and always keeps it at 'low-neck' temperature for the comfort of the empty-headed social climb­ers who frequent the place and drink up his oily compliments along with their tea. In The Fortunes of Oliver Horn, F. Hopkinson Smith (1838-1913) outlined an even more cynical profile in the career of 'The Honorable Parker Ridgway, R. A., P. Q.' -- a painter who 'can't draw, never could.' Ridgway joined the right New York clubs and had his wardrobe made by the right tailor. Then he 'hunted up a pretty young married woman occupying the dead-centre of the sanctified social circle, went into spasms over her beauty ... grew confidential with the husband at the club, and begged permission to make just a sketch ... for his head of Sappho, Berlin Exhibition. Next he rented a suite of rooms, crowded in a lot of borrowed tapestries, brass, Venetian chests, lamps and hangings; gave a tea -- servants this time in livery -- ­exhibited his Sappho; refused a big price for it from the husband, got orders instead for two half-lengths, $1,500 each, finished them in two weeks.' Hearing this tale, a poor but honest painter mutters: 'Just like a fakir peddling cheap jewelry.' Another reasons: 'Merchants, engineers, manufacturers, and even scientists, when they have anything to sell, go where there is somebody to buy; why shouldn't the artist?' The question was a rhetorical one, of course.

"Ironically, Smith himself was a commercially successful and socially prominent artist, if not a society painter, who freely admitted that his work was a commodity. Perhaps his subject matter -- touristic views of Venice and other romantic, picturesque spots -- mitigated the onus a bit: he was not in the business of glamorizing celebrity and wealth. Portrait painters, by contrast, could hardly avoid being associated with fashion and fame, and if they hobnobbed with their clients they exposed themselves to the pernicious atmosphere of wealth and the cult of celebrity it fostered. Journalist Aline Corren warned that artistic recognition in this climate was bound up with the 'idea of money, ostentation, show' at the expense of everything that provided true nutriment for the mind and soul. It was the artist's duty to avoid those surroundings 'which stunt and cripple ... instead of developing and enlarging him.' The society hostess might lure her victim into a salon of the most pleasing and flattering ambi­ence, but the result for the artist was 'a relaxing of the mental fiber, and a fatigue, flat, stale, and unprofitable.' Like a vampire, society fastened itself on the artist to sap him, empty him, and leave 'only the husk of him behind.' High society and commercialism produced the identical result: they sucked away the pith and soul, leaving nothing but surface, a simulacrum, a shell. Both turned on the same axis of materialism, consumption, status seeking, surface values, and commodity display. Both were equally deadly to the life and spirit of American art, because both exalted the language of facade, style, and veneer."



Sarah Burns


Inventing the Modern Artist


Yale University


Copyright 1996 by Yale University


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