“No more paughtraits… I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another, especially of the Upper Classes.” So wrote John Singer Sargent in 1907. Controversial words from an artist whose reputation was based almost entirely upon painting people. But true to his word, after this year he turned his paintbrush to landscape: “Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns which I should gladly do, but not the human face.” Not that he gave up portraiture altogether during the final two decades of his life. He painted both President Woodrow Wilson and John D Rockefeller in 1917, and continued each year to carry out a handful of commissions, including, in 1913, a painting of his old friend Henry James. The picture was requested by a group of the writer’s admirers to mark his seventieth birthday, and despite having quite “lost his nerve” when it came to painting portraits – as Sargent confided to James himself – the work, on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, seemed to please the sitter, “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst”, James wrote.
It is not surprising that Sargent was sick of portraits. By 1909 he had produced nearly 500 and the constraints of the medium and pressures of his patrons had become too much. But it is for his portraits that he is remembered and even when the dukes, duchesses and politicians are set aside, as the National Portrait Gallery does for its current show, there are writers, actors, artists, children, aesthetes and musicians aplenty.
Over the past twenty years, Sargent’s reputation has been salvaged. With several major shows, a catalogue raisonné and auction sales reaching the multi-millions, he has secured his place in the annals of art history. Almost immediately after his death, however, his popularity and status – which had rarely waned during his lifetime – crashed. A variety of reasons explain this fall: Roger Fry’s damning posthumous appraisal of the artist started the trend, and by the 1930s Sargent-bashing had become an established way of thinking. Sargent the society pet, with his frivolous and – shock, horror – realistic pictures of pearls and earls was, in an age of economic austerity and artistic Modernism, not cool. And it is the correlation between the painter and those he painted which warps the way, even post-rehabilitation, we see him today. Minion to the rich and famous, and with a resounding talent for producing pretty yet unchallenging paintings, he has acquired a reputation as talented but, dare I write it… dim.
Such an assessment is unfair. He may not have had much formal education, but Sargent and his siblings attended the Eton of home-schools, and were brought up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere of European travel, art, music and literature. Sargent the lightweight was, in fact, fluent in several languages, a brilliant pianist, and addicted to theatre and literature. The proof lies in his pictures. For when he was not portraying aristocrats and politicians, he was painting his friends and colleagues. On the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, they form quite the highbrow group: Gabriel Fauré was a pal, as was Robert Louis Stevenson and the intellectual Vernon Lee. When living in Paris, Sargent’s artistic set had included Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin and Paul Helleu, and after moving to England in 1885, he settled in Broadway, the Worcestershire colony of Anglo-American artists and writers.
It would be dangerous to assert that there is a clear demarcation in style between Sargent’s formal portrait commissions and those he produced for friends and acquaintances. But while his dukes, duchesses and grandees tend to stand (or sit) to attention in traditional grand manner poses, it would have been preposterous for Sargent to adopt the same approach when painting his close friends. And so Robert Louis Stevenson walks across a room, Mrs Besnard cuts a slice of birthday cake and the artist Jane de Gehn sketches while her husband idly watches beside her. Sargent, however, tended to save his compositional eccentricities for friends and fellow artists in his immediate circle. When he paints those who might be called his “cultural colleagues”, his style becomes more conventional. Edwin Booth, a successful American Shakespearean actor, may not be standing quite so stiffly as the Duke of Connaught, but nor is he lounging in an armchair.
And how deeply does Sargent penetrate? Robert Louis Stevenson looks eccentric enough, Henry James is distinguished and clever, and Ellen Terry can act; but this exhibition, coming hot on the heels of Rembrandt at the National Gallery and Moroni at the Royal Academy, puts Sargent against some stiff competition. Because it is one thing to characterise your sitter, and quite another to decipher his essence. It is most obvious when Sargent’s sitters are painted as professionals: here the props and accessories – many of which the artist insisted upon himself – begin to obscure what is underneath. There is no doubt that La Carmencita was a hot-headed, high-maintenance diva, but we get little sense of what goes on behind the layers of face paint. W. Graham Robertson is a handsome dandy with a splendid air of fashionable-ennui, but whatever else there is, is overwhelmed by the absurd coat and poodle. And perhaps this is the intention. We see what Sargent sees and we see what his sitters wanted us to see, but the rest remains unexposed. There are times when he delves deeper: the little Pailleron girl has more to her, as does her mother, whose grief over a lost son seems to haunt her face and subdue her fancy dress and pose. But on occasion Sargent also edges towards caricature. Asher Wertheimer is almost too shrewd to be true, and Coventry Patmore’s self-assurance verges on the hyperbolic.
Not that it mattered. Sargent’s clients were, for the most part, delighted with his work: Wertheimer commissioned a further eleven paintings of his wife and children over the following decade leaving the artist complaining of “chronic Wertheimerism”. If the fact that Sargent’s portraits are easy to enjoy made his work unpopular during the decades following his death, there is no need to deny ourselves such pleasures today. And at the National Portrait Gallery we are in safe hands. Today’s exhibition is curated by Sargent’s great-nephew, Richard Orment, a scholar who has devoted his career to the painter and helped kick-start the artist’s rehabilitation in the early 1970s. Critics’ responses have been universally positive and without a snooty comment between them, Sargent, it seems, is here to stay.