Sargent's Life through his writing, paintings and drawings
NEITHER Sargent's visits to America nor his work for the Boston Library had shaken his preference for London as a permanent home. The tie of allegiance to America was one thing, but Europe was necessary to his artistic life. From London he could easily visit his favourite countries and in Tite Street he was in close proximity to his mother and sister Emily. When Sargent began his career as a portrait painter in London he was classed by the public and not a few of the critics as an Impressionist. This was inevitable. He hailed from the home of Impressionism; and London was still under the spell of "Finish."* If treatment was summary and abbreviated, and the subject suggested instead of stated with all possible explicit- ness, the painter was held in the early nineties to be sinning against the light. It was all very well to sow artistic wild oats in Paris, the harvest in London must be something to which the public was accustomed. Anything that showed a lack of " finish" was suspect. Sargent's bravura and vitality of technique were alone enough to stamp him in the popular mind as an Impressionist.
Few labels have led to more misunderstanding; applied in the seventies to a special aspect of painting, it was used later to cover qualities which had nothing to do with those which the word had been coined to describe. In Paris the word had a specialized sense; it did not denote that Impressionism common to much fine painting. It denoted a peculiar treatment of light, and was less concerned with focus, the relation of planes, and actual form.
In the following letters Sargent gives his own idea of the particular significance and value of Impressionism. The first letter, addressed to Mr. D. S. MacColl, was written in 191 2:
* See ante, p. 87.
My dear MacColl,
I daresay I muddled what I said about Impressionism last night and perhaps this is a clear definition of what I think Monet would mean by the word, "The observation of the colour and value of the image on our retina of those objects or parts of objects of which we are prevented by an excess or deficiency of light from seeing the surface or local colour."
Of course to a very astigmatic or abnormal eyesight the whole field of vision might offer phenomena for the notation of an impressionist, but to the average vision it is only in extreme cases of light and dark, that the eye is conscious of seeing something else than the object, in other words conscious of its own medium — that something else is what the impressionist tries to note exactly. . . .
John S. Sargent.
The two letters which follow were written to Mr. Jameson, a close friend of Sargent and the author of a volume on art which forms the text of the letters.
31, Tite Street,
My dear Jameson, March 20th
I have been reading your book with great enjoyment, and feel as if my ideas and my vocabulary had gone through a very satisfactory spring cleaning and I like the opposition of your clear processes of reasoning and analysis as far as that will take one and the ultimate mystery that you lead one up to from the different directions.
There is one point only that I should quibble at and that is your use of the word Impressionism and Impressionist, These words were coined in Paris at a particular moment when Claude Monet opened the eyes of a few people to certain phenomena of optics, and they have a very precise meaning which is not the one that you use them for, so that in the exact sense or to a Frenchman Watts' saying "All art is Impressionism" would be a misuse of words.
"Impressionism" was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).
It led to his doing 50 pictures of the same subject under varying degrees of light and the phenomena which he recorded would be more or less apparent when there was excess or deficiency of light and the fact that he is astigmatic accounts for his having an excellent subject for his own discoveries in this line.
A person with normal eyesight would have nothing to know in the way of "Impressionism" unless he were in a blinding light or in the dusk or dark.
If you want to know what an impressionist tries for (by the way Degas said there is only one Impressionist "Claude Monet") go out of doors and look at a landscape with the sun in your eyes and alter the angle of your hat brim and notice the difference of colour in dark objects according to the amount of light you let into your eyes — you can vary it from the local colour of the object (if there is less light) to something entirely different which is an appearance on your own retina when there is too much light.
It takes years to be able to note this accurately enough for painting purposes and it would only seem worth while to people who would wear the same glasses as the painter and then it has the effect of for the first time coming across a picture that looks like nature and gives the sense of living — for these reasons Monet bowled me over — and he counts as having added a new perception to Artists as the man did who invented perspective.
This observation or faculty does not make a man an Artist any more than a knowledge of perspective does — it is merely a refining of one's means towards representing things and one step further away from the hieroglyph by adding to the representation of a thing the conscious Will of the Medium through which one sees it.
One of these days some genius will turn it to account and make it part of the necessary equipment of an Artist.
For the present in its exact sense "impressionism" does not come within the scope of your considerations. Of course I agree with what you say, given the rough and tumble and un-Jameson like use of the word.
You can make impression stand for whatever you like but not add -sm or -ist without being challenged by the astigmatic.
Yours sincerely John Sargent.
31, Tite Street,
My dear Jameson, April (1911 or 1912).
Thanks for your kind letter.
I am glad you take my bit of special pleading good naturedly. I was afraid after having posted my letter that I had not made clear that I was not quarrelling with what you said about Impressionism but only defining the term.
Of course your meaning is the general accepted one and the right one in the context as long as the precise meaning is so little known — it will be years before the idea itself will have become familiar even to most painters — when it is, there will have to be a foot note in your book.
The habit of breaking up one's colour to make it brilliant dates from further back than Impressionism — Couture advocates it in a little book called "Causeries d'Atelier" written about i860 — it is part of the technique of Impressionism but used for quite a different reason.
Couture, Delacroix, Orchardson break up their colour but they are not Impressionists. Yours sincerely,
John S. Sargent.
In these letters there are phrases not easy to interpret. For instance, the writer has spoken of the retina as though it could be watched and studied as a separable portion of the organ of vision. "Adding to the representation of a thing the conscious will of the medium through which one sees it" implies more than was meant by Sir Joshua Reynolds when he spoke of "seeing with the dilated eye." It suggests that the retina intervenes between the spectator and the scene to be observed, and that on it, as on a stained glass window through which light is trans- mitted, changes take place which can be studied and chronicled. The retina performs no such function. The observer cannot disintegrate the process of vision, nor will any "conscious will" enable him to analyze the office of the retina, any more than it would enable him to trace the operation of a mental perception on the substance of the brain. The phrase should perhaps be taken as suggesting no more than a heightened consciousness in the process of observation at a given moment. But, however that may be, the deep interest and the true interest of the letters lie in the revelation they afford of Sargent's attitude to the quality of Impressionism as shown in the work of Monet. He recognizes that here is an epoch in the history of painting, a point of departure, and the disclosure of a new possibility in pictorial art. Not, it should be noted, so much through the discovery of a new technical process, as by the rendering in paint of phenomena which had hitherto eluded the vision of painters.
Was he at all affected by the novel vision of which he was so keenly aware ?
Can it be traced in his own work ?
To answer the question we must estimate these influences and their novelty more exactly. What did they, in effect, consist of, and what was the novelty they imported ? The introduction of light into a picture had been an aim of many schools of painting, notably of the Dutch; but what no school had hitherto adequately apprehended was the relation between colour and light. Colour had been regarded as an attribute of the object, and not the product of scintillant vibrations transmitted to the eye. In the painting of Monet there was revealed the truth which science had already established, that colour varies with light, and differs from moment to moment as the scale of light alters. It was in order to arrest this fugitive quality of colour and its flickering inconstancy that Monet would multiply his representations of the same object, as when he painted fifty canvases of one haystack and reiterated his studies of Rouen Cathedral. Sargent used to say that when he visited Monet at the Savoy Hotel, he found him surrounded by some ninety canvases — each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames. When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.
It was no permanent attribute of the scene that Monet tried to express, but its momentary colour aspect under various degrees of illumination. He set out on his career as a painter without any preconceived idea or scientific theory, but gifted with an exceptional power of vision he painted what he saw, the visible world drenched in light and ceaslessly changing in colour as the light ebbed or strengthened. Gradually and pari passu, with his apprehension of the scientific truth, he developed a technique which enabled him to catch and render this elusive quality. Mr. MacColl, in an illuminating article* on the subject, has referred to the method of the Impressionists as "a new handling
* See "Encyclopaedia Britannica," article "Impressionism and Modern Art," by the same author. of colour by small broken touches in place of the large flowing touches characteristic of Monet," and, summarizing the characteristics of these painters, he goes on to say that the ideas dominating the school were: (i) Abolition of conventional brown tonality. But all browns, in the fervour of this revolt, went the way of conventional brown, and all ready-made mixtures like the umbers, orchres, siennas, were banished from the palette. Black itself was condemned. (2) The idea of the spectrum, which, as exhibiting the series of primary or pure colours, directed the reformed palette. (3) These colours being laid on the canvas with as little previous mixture on the palette as possible to maintain a maximum of luminosity, and being fused by touch on the canvas as little as possible for the same reason.* Here we have a terse statement of the Impressionist method as practised by Monet.
Thus it would appear that Monet has gone further than his predecessors in a certain visual discernment, and that his genius has enabled him to evolve a technique which will render on canvas this field of luminous notation. Broad sweeps of the brush and large areas of colour varying only in tone have been replaced by lesser touches of less mixed colour, producing on the canvas a closer adherence to the colour sensations experienced when contemplating the object which gave rise to them. As a result of this there certainly entered into pictorial art a new freshness and vitality. Every object being rendered on the canvas under the magic influence of light, there resulted a greater unity of impression. Light and shade were brought closer together in tone, the violent contrasts of the old chiaroscuro were dispensed with. Definition gave place to mystery, scintillation and iridescence were added to the rendering of colour. Tactile values, it is true, tended as a consequence to be relegated to a secondary position; but the gain to art, as Sargent points out, was a lasting one, permanently enriching the resources at the command of the painter. Mr. Harold Speed has defined
* It will be observed that Mr. MacColl has not included broken colour as an essential part of the Impressionist technique. At the same time, the fact must not be lost sight of that broken colour was made use of from time to time, and would still in some quarters be regarded as even essential to a true Impressionist picture. the extent to which the Impressionists have varied the technique of Turner, who profoundly influenced Monet and Pissarro when they visited London in 1871. "Turner's method," he writes, "had been to lay on with large masses of pure colour, and when dry work over them thinly with other pure colours, one showing through the other. The method of putting colours down side by side and letting them blend* as they came to the eye was the invention of the Impressionists, and added greatly to the vividness of the mixtures and wonderfully extended the capacity of pigments to represent light effects. ,
I wished to obtain, if possible, some indication of M. Monet's own views on Sargent's letter to Mr. Jameson and on the Impressionist position generally. I had the good fortune to find Claude Monet at home on an afternoon in May, 1926. I made the pilgrimage to Giverny, supported by a letter of introduction from M. Helleu. It was an afternoon of broad sunshine. The garden which the painter had cultivated and watched with parental fondness for forty years was rich with the colour of spring flowers. A broad path led down from the house to a gateway opening on to a road. On the other side of the road, surrounded by high poplars, lay the stretch of water in which Monet cultivated every species of lily. Spanning the water was the bridge which has figured so often on his canvases. Beyond this again lay the meadowland bordering the wide waters of the Seine. At the moment Monet was conversing in his garden with two devout visitors from Japan, who presently took their leave with reverential obeisances. He was now free to peruse the letter from M. Helleu, and shortly turned to me with a cordial invitation to enter the house. We sat in the long room on whose walls hung four tiers of unframed canvases, dating from the earliest to the latest years of the master's work. The room was simply furnished, the walls of pine; green blinds tempered the strength of the sun, but through the open window came the scent from the garden, and the hum of bees. At this date Monet, born in 1840, was eighty-five years of age, but the activity of his compact frame, the vigour of his voice and the alertness of his mind pointed to an astonishing discrepancy between constitution and age. He struck a visitor as at once gay and kindly, keen in his wit, and emphatic in his prejudices, wholly simple and unaffected, with something rustic in his bearing. None could have failed to notice the touch of dandyism visible in the cuffs of ruffled lawn, which projected from the sleeves of his rough summer clothes, nor the fineness of his hands, nor the curious quality of his eye, which, magnified behind the lens of powerful spectacles, seemed to possess some of the properties of a searchlight and be ready to seize on the innermost secrets of a visible world. When Sargent's letter, of which an accurate translation had been made, was read to him he seemed frankly nonplussed, and he asked that it might be read again. A second reading found him obviously flattered by the references to him- self,* but at a loss to recognize what was said as descriptive of his work. He went on to say:
* This in effect constitutes broken colour.
L'Impressionisme ce n'est que la sensation immediate. Tous les grands peintres etaient plus ou moins impressionistes. C'est surtout une question d'instinct. Tout cela est plus simple que ne le croit Sar- gent. Le mot Impressionisme a ete invente par les journaux saty- riques comme raillerie, a la grande colere de Manet. J'ai fait beau- coup de mal, car j'ai ete un bien mauvais exemplef . . . ce qu'il faut c'est la fraicheur de sensation. Oui il-y-a la Decoloration des tons et dans de passage d'un ton a un antre il-y-a une nuance. Par ex- emple entre le bleu et le jaune il-y-a quelque chose qui se passe qu'on peut exprimer dans la peinture. II est exact que le soleil decompose tout; ainsi les fleurs sont plus jolies par temps, gris,
(this a propos of the passage in Sargent's letter to Mr. Jameson, in which he refers to the effect of an excess of light). M. Monet said that formerly painters had used one tube of paint for the shadow and another for the light, that was over and done with.
* In a previous letter to me, Monet had said: "Je vousenvoie deux lettres de Sargent qui vous confirmeront l'admiration qu'il avait pour moi, ce dont je reste tres fier."
I t This was a consideration very present to his mind; in a letter of August 25, 1926, Madame Monet (his daughter-in-law), writing at his instance, when he was too ill to write, said: "II est du reste plus en plus desole, d'avoir ete la cause involontaire de son nom d'Impressionisme." He then turned to recollections of Sargent:
J'ai recontre pour la premiere fois Sargent et Helleu chez Durand Ruel Rue de la Paix vers 1876. Sargent s'est precipite sur moi en me disant. Est ce vraiment vous-vous-Claude Monet ? Puis il m'a invite a diner, rendez vous au Cafe de la Paix, il avait plusieurs amis avec lui. Je leur ai indique le Cafe du Helder, et la nous avons demande un salon particulier. Malheureusement il y avait plusieurs tableaux de moi — j'etais confus en entrant, ayant honte que Sargent etles autres pussent penser que c'etait a cause de mes tableaux que j'avais indique le Cafe Helder.
After that they remained friends till Sargent's death; in later years meeting seldom; their lines of life diverging, but their interest in one another suffering no eclipse.
Quand j'allais voir Sargent a Londres (M. Monet continued) il retournait beaucoup de ses toiles les jugleant mauvaises. Non — Sargent n'aimait pas le fleurs. II disait ce que je n'aime pas dans les fleurs c'est qu'elle ne sont pas en harmonie avec les feuilles — II n'etait pas un Impressioniste, au sens ou nous employons ce mot, il etait trop sous Tinfluence de Carolus Duran.
Monet had been suffering from his eyesight for several months, but pointing to some pictures standing on the floor he said: "Dernierement un matin en sortant je me suis apercu que j'avais retrouve l'usage de la vue et la perception des tons et des teintes comme autrefois, alors j'ai fait ces tableaux." That brought our interview to an end. The "temps gris" was approaching. The colours of his garden were growing in intensity, and with a gesture calling my attention to the delicacy of tint which the irises had assumed, he said good-bye.
Some days later, anxious to obtain confirmation of his view of Sargent's letter, I sent him a copy and received the following
Giverny par Vernon, Eure,
Excusez moi de ne pas vous avoir repondu plus tot mais toujours un peu souffrant je ne puis encore vous ecrire moi meme.
Je ne puis du reste que vous confirmer ce que vous ai dit dans notre derniere intervue. Apres avoir relu attentivement votre lettre et cellecopieede Sargent je vousavouc que si la traduction dc la lettre de Sargent est exacteje tic puis I'approuver d'abord parceque Sargent me fait plus grand que je ne suis, que j'ai toujours en horreur des theories enrtn que je n'ai que le merite d'avoir peint directement devant la nature en cherchant a rendre mes impressions devant les effets les plus fugitifs, et je reste desole d'avoir ete la cause du nom donne a un groupe dont la plus part n'avait rien d'impressionisme.
Avec tous mes regrets de ne pouvoir vous donner entiere satisfac- tion recevez mes sentiments les meillures.
Subsequently Monet sent me a review by Paul Landormy, which he had underlined, of a book by Maurice Emmanuel on the music of Debussy. The passages that follow certainly bear out some of M. Monet's views on his own art. Writing of Debussy the reviewer says:
On se rappelle qu* a un de ses maitres, effare de la liberte de son langage harmonique et qui lui demande Mais quelle regie suivez-vous done? II repondit. "Mon plaisir." . . . Quand il s'agit de discerner le beau, de decider ce qu 'il lui conviendra d'ecrire, il oublie tous les principes, toutes les regies et ne prend parti que sur les im- pressions de son oreille. . . . Au lieu d'amalgamer les timbres pour des effets de masse, il degage Tune de l'autre leurs personalites, ou il les marie delicatement sans alterer leur nature propre. Comme les peintres impressionistes de ce temps, il peint par couleurs pures, mais avec unesobriete delicate, que toute rudesserebute, comme un laideur. . . . Mais un impressioniste ne Test jamais que de tendance, de volonte, d'intention. II ne peut aller jus qu'au bout de son systeme, si du moins il-y-a, systeme. . . . L'impressionisme n'est done, dans son fond, qu'une apparence. Mais il est au moins une methode. . . . If Monet disclaimed some of the theory and practice which Sargent had seen in his work, we must not too readily assume that justification for the views which Sargent expressed is wanting. Creators are not necessarily the best analysts of their own methods. Critics have deduced from Shakespeare or Velasquez principles which they would probably assert had never been present to their minds. In the case of Monet, too, humility would have made him hesitate to claim any great importance
as a painter. But in any case it remains interesting that Sargent should have seen in the work of Monet these qualities, and that he regarded them as playing a real part in the development of art. One further point remains to be noticed. In his letter to Mr. Jameson, Sargent relates that Monet had suffered from astigmatism and was therefore chronically in the state of a person with normal sight when "in a blinding light or in the dusk or dark." He thought the story amusingly significant that Monet, having been provided by an oculist with glasses, hurled them away after realizing their effect, saying: "If the world really looks like that I will paint no more!" The curious thing is that Sargent himself suffered from astigmatism and was therefore, though in a less degree than Monet, peculiarly equipped for studying the phenomena he discusses in these letters. He could speak from personal experience. The precise effect of astigmatism is, in proportion to its acuteness, to blur and confuse. The colour sense is otherwise not affected. We might have expected, therefore, to find in his work strong traces of the Impressionism which he admired so enthusiastically in Monet. It is a point on which opinions will differ. If we take Mr. MacColl's three tests,* it would probably be agreed that in Sargent's work it is generally true that brown tonality plays a very small part. On the other hand, in the use of primary colours, and in the application of colour by broken touches, there is very much less reason for reckoning him as an Impressionist. In his rendering of landscape he probably goes as near to producing the quality of dazzle in a scene as any painter has yet succeeded in doing — but that particular atmospheric iridescence associated with Monet rarely appears in the work of Sargent. That fusion of colours which takes place "under the federating power of real light" is not a common characteristic of his art. He relies too much on contrast, on the opposition of values, on emphasis and accent, on vigour of colouring, and explicit form. His painting is characterized by too much force and directness; the objects are insistent and vivid, their substance and texture are at once perceived. He is a painter essentially in three dimensions; in a flash he gives the weight and volume of what he sees. The light falls across the scene he paints, but it intervenes in a less degree between the scene and the spectator. The splendours are seldom veiled. He registers another order of beauty than that attained by Monet. Here and there, it is true, a water-colour of Venice (notably one in the possession of Professor Tonks) will give the aerial effects aimed at by the Impressionists, but they are attained by another technique, and the effects are more quiescent and less impermanent. On the other hand, the nuance of which Monet speaks is often noticeable in his painting* the optic occurrence, if the phrase may be allowed, at the point of juncture between two colours. In many cases he will indicate the outline of an object with a colour which is more nearly akin to the colour with which the object is juxtaposed.
* See ante, p. 127.
For example, in the picture called Oxen Resting the roof is not outlined with the ruddy colour reflected from the tiles, but by the blue of the sky, which has the effect of intensifying the sense of light, heat and the vibration in the air. Pointing to this picture, and indicating this feature, he said: "That is how I see it, astigmatism gives that effect." Indeed, he used to say half in fun that the French school of Impressionism was due to the astigmatism of a man of genius (Monet). In 1888-89, as has been already stated, he was making experiments in Impressionism, and seeing how far he could incorporate into his art the lessons to be learnt from it. At Fladbury he was continually making quick studies of reflections of what Mr. Frank Rutter has described as "our vision of things seen momentarily in the duration of a flash of lightning/ ' and the four pictures, St. Martin s Summer, Lady Fishing, Claude Monet Sketching (painted at Giverny in 1888) and Paul Helleu and His Wife, in which he makes use of broken colour, belong to these years. As has been pointed out, they are outside the main current of his art.
We must agree with Claude Monet, that Sargent was never an Impressionist in the Parisian sense of the word. When he began portrait painting in London, he had inherited, through Carolus Duran, certain influences from Velasquez, the relations of values, the handling of contrasts of shadow and light, and that degree of relief in modelling which is consistent with reticence of statement and simplification. But the influence of which he was pre-eminently aware was that of Franz Hals. This will be more apparent when his methods of teaching are examined.
* See ante, p. 129.
Whether the revolution in painting brought about by the Impressionists will hereafter appear as decisive as many critics would have us believe, is doubtful. What cannot be doubted, however, is the change in taste which they effected in England. Whereas in the eighties pictures showing traces of French influence were looked on by the public and the critics* with disfavour, by 1920 a picture which failed to show French affinities had comparatively little chance of success among the fastidious. Sudden as the changes in fashion and taste are apt to be, the history of art might be searched in vain for a swing over so complete and abrupt as the last thirty years have witnessed. A corresponding change has occurred in aesthetic theory. A new school of criticism has grown up, whose business it has been to formulate fresh canons of appreciation. There is no doubt the nerves of dogmatic critics have had a bad shake, and after having been forced to eat their words about the Impressionists they are now even over-inclined to welcome developments in art which startle and surprise. Science and metaphysics have been called in to aid. Resemblance, representation, interpretation of fact, have had to give way before "significant form," abstract relation, "psychological volumes," pattern and the "emotional elements of design." The critics have, indeed, kept pace with the successors of the Impressionists. The representative quality in a work of art is now judged to be of less importance than other more pressing considerations. One of the leading critics of the new school has said: "The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, always it is irrelevant." Obviously if that dogma is sound and is applied to the art of Sargent, his work must be considered as mainly irrelevant. No wonder they treat Sargent's art as so much material in which to flesh their spears. It is, however, impossible to ignore that an active section of advanced and cultured opinion fails to find in his work many of the qualities that certain critics claim to be essential to the highest art. Such must be the fate, for the present, of all art which has representation as its primary purpose.
* Mr. George Moore, one of the first to open the eyes of the English art world to the French school, was an enlightened exception to this general statement.
OVER Sargent in the nineties, what Henry James calls "the wand of evocation" is weak, calling up only a few echoes, which give faint occasion for conjecture. At a moment when the recollections of living men should be enlightening, they add, with one happy exception, singularly little to our knowledge. When the keenness of Sargent's early contacts with English life might have been expected to furnish correspondence, only a few notes hastily written have survived to flutter down the intervening years. As at all times he is, of course, immersed in his work. He is absorbed by the claims of his Boston contract; Moloch, Astarte, Osiris and Horus are the company of his imagination, and sitters now begin to clamour at his door. The story of his life must be read in his output. His days are strenuous with work, his recreations are music and the theatre and the company of his friends. His personality and his striking appearance are impressing themselves on a constantly widening circle of London life. Four months of the year, into which, owing to the English climate, he averred it was necessary to crowd the painting of portraits, were invariably spent in London; the late autumn and winter down to the year 1895 at Morgan Hall. In 1892 no work of his was exhibited in London. In 1893 his only picture at Burlington House was the portrait of Lady Agnew now in the National Gallery of Scotland. Painted in a high key it has a quality of prettiness which he seldom affected; it is carefully finished. Mauve, light blue and white and the method of their combination give the picture a claim of apostolic succession to the walls of the Academy. It is a careful portrait, free of any fine frenzy, sedately handled, and rather lacking in the force and fire of his dazzling technique. It was applauded by the critics, but the tide carrying Sargent forward was now breast high, and henceforward, though he was to receive plenty of criticism, he had rarely during the remainder of his lifetime to experience disparagement. At the New Gallery he was represented by his full-length portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley and Mrs. George Lewis. To this year also belongs a very brilliant study of Mrs. Hammersley exhibited at the Royal Academy (1925). For sheer animation and vivacity, and as a character study, it ranks with the vivid sketch of Vernon Lee.
STUDY OF ARAB WOMEN.
About the portrait of Mrs. Hammersley he wrote to his friend Edwin Abbey:
I have begun the routine of portrait painting with anxious relatives hanging on my brush. Mrs. Hammersley has a mother and I am handicapped by a vexatious accident (I have no luck). The other day at the Cafe Royal where I collapsed after seeing the R.A. and the New Gallery I was reviving over a chop and a glass of beer when I felt a frightful sting on my thigh, dropped my hands on it, struggled with hissing flames and smoke, was taken for an unsuccessful anarchist and at last extinguished a box of Swedish safety matches, that blazed in my pocket. The remains of the box were handed round to reassure the Cafe and I went to the nearest apothecary where they buttered me up — I have a Turner sunset on my thigh and certain blisters on my hands — but I go about and can work in an inferior style — The exhibitions are vile. There is a remarkable portrait of a man on ship board by Gregory at the R.A. Watts* head of Walter Crane is fine and so is his Eve at the Academy very fine.
Yours in adamant,
John S. Sargent.
While these pictures were being discussed in London Sargent himself was again in America. It was the year of the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, in the art section of which nine of his pictures were shown, including Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Mrs, Davis and her son, Life Study of Egyptian Girl, Miss Dunham, Miss Pratt, Mrs. Inches, and Homer St. Gaudens with his Mother. Homer St. Gaudens, then about ten years old, is one of the painter's most successful studies of boy- hood — naive, ingenuous and charming, thinking the thoughts of his age without a flicker of self-consciousness. It is one of the pictures — many were to follow — in which the sitter's hands are as important as expressions of character as they are in the decorative
scheme. Few artist have shown an equal ingenuity in the disposition of hands, in using them as elements in portraiture, and in varying their function in the composition. In his hundreds of portraits he rarely repeats himself. The hands he paints carry character to their finger-tips, they are vehicles of the spirit, pliant media of expression, conveying age and youth, nervous energy, resolution, delicate sensibility, or as plainly the dull opposites of these qualities. But in every case they are made to play a part as important as the eye or any feature of the face. It is only necessary to refer to the portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Joseph Choate, Lord Wemyss, Mrs. Augustus Hemenway, Lady Sassoon, Mrs. Henry White, Miss Helen Dunham. In each of these portraits the hands tell ; in some cases they are barely more than indicated, in some perhaps the drawing may be criticized, but in one and all they are alive with meaning. They are never formal, never conventional; they are inseparable from the character of the sitter.
About this time Miss J. H. Heyneman arrived as an art-student from America with a letter of introduction which she forwarded to Tite Street. In response Sargent wrote:
I am delighted to have the prospect of making your acquaintance and wish I were able to begin correctly by calling upon you at once. My morning and afternoon daily sittings leave me little hope of being able to do so, and it would be kind of you to waive ceremony and pay a visit instead to my studio. Any day next week, after half past five, you would be sure to find me, and I will be glad to show you what few things are in my studio.
Miss Heyneman called the following week.
In my mind's eye (she writes) I can still see Mr. Sargent come forward to meet me with a cordial simplicity that put me at once at my ease. My first impression deepened but never changed. In any company he seemed to tower over every one else in the room, as much by reason of his personality as through the accident of his height. At that time his close cut beard was dark brown and his thick hair and sharply marked eyebrows were almost black. On his broad shoulders his head looked small, and was chiefly remarkable for the beauty of the brow, which was splendidly broad and full. His eyes were large, somewhat prominent and greenish grey in colour (they had lost the blueness which they had in early youth). His quiet humorous gaze was essentially kind rather than sharp but he missed nothing of what went on around him. In repose his glance was often half veiled and brooding, but when he became interested his eyes lit up and he fixed them, full and sparkling, upon the speaker who, inspired by that intent gaze, would often surpass himself, or tell far more than he intended.
Shortly afterwards he called at the hotel where Miss Heyneman was staying, and insisted on seeing, not only the sketches which she had been prepared to show him, but all those she had brought to England with her. His criticisms, as he sat on the floor where the sketches were laid out, were at once friendly and drastic; he urged the necessity of self-discipline, of never being satisfied with easy conclusions, of always trying to do the thing just beyond one's capacity. He told her that she was too ignorant to be so clever in her drawing, that any success arrived at by chance was of little value, that the education of a painter was chiefly a matter of training eye, hand and mind to work swiftly and in unison, and that what she acquired herself would always be of more interest than what she acquired through his or any other teaching. He went on:
Never leave " empty spaces," every stroke of pencil or brush should have significance and not merely fill in, . . . copy one of the heads by Franz Hals in the National Gallery, then you will get an idea of what I mean by leaving no empty spaces in modelling a head, work at the fine head of the old woman rather than the superficial one of the man, I will come there and give you a criticism and haul you over the coals.
Sure enough a few days later he appeared at the National Gallery. After looking at what she had done he said: " Don't concentrate so much on the features . . . they are only like spots on an apple . . . paint the head . . . now you have only nose, mouth and eyes."
Later on he advised her to go to Haarlem, and on her return wrote: I'll come with pleasure on Tuesday. ... I hope you'll have some copies of Franz Hals to show me. Jacomb Hood tells me that you have come back charged with enthusiasm and the spirit of knowledge. There is certainly no place like Haarlem to key one up.
His criticisms were often trenchant. "That's not a head," he would say, "that's a collection of features." "That's not a shadow, that's a hole, there is light in the darkest shadow." But though often severe, he never discouraged. No one sought his advice, whether in painting or writing or music, without gaining some new stimulus to effort. He could disapprove without wounding, and condemn without disheartening. The self-indulgence which takes the form of telling home truths was unknown to him; he respected too much the sensibilities of others. He had the good manners which have their origin in the heart, the courtesy which springs from sympathy; and if he trod delicately it was because he had a fine instinct for what others felt. This made him an invaluable and helpful critic. He accepted people as they were, he had none of that shallow passion which desires to see them different. Where he saw an opportunity to encourage he took it.
Miss Heyneman has fortunately treasured many of his dicta in relation to the study of painting.*
Meanwhile, during these years, the nineties, it had ceased to be a question who would be painted by Sargent; the question was whom would he find time to paint. Now, whatever view we take of the nineties, it was certainly a period which produced a great variety of types, though to generalize about the characteristics which they owed in common to their times is not easy. Indeed, to find a common denominator between Carmencita and Lady Faudel Phillips, between Coventry Patmore and Sir Asher Wertheimer, between Joseph Chamberlain and Graham Robertson, or between M. Leon de la Fosse the pianist and Mr. W. M. Cazalet, might well pass the wit of man. Here we may detect a difference between the task which fell to Sargent and that which confronted some of his predecessors in England. Van Dyck was able to give with plausibility a general air of nobility to all his sitters, Sir Peter Lely an appearance of courtliness, Sir Joshua Reynolds and his contemporaries a quiet look of security and distinction. The sitters of these artists looked out on the world for the most part with high notions of social pride, aware of differences of status, and with the insignia of high descent as part of their natural equipment. They fitted as of right into backgrounds of which colonnades and patrician homes, parks and stately trees were the appropriate setting. Sargent's lot was to paint a world much wider, less stable and more complicated.
* See post, p. 1 8 1.
In 1894 Sargent, who that year was represented in the Academy
by a portrait of Miss Chanler, and a lunette and portion of
the ceiling for the Public Library of Boston, and in the New
English Art Club by four sketches, was elected an A.R.A. His
own art was too clearly distinct from the Academic painting of
the day for him not to experience some nervousness at finding
himself in such company. In thanking Ralph Curtis for his congratulations on the honour thus conferred, he wrote:
My dear Ralph,
Thanks for your flourish of trumpets and waving of caps — If one lives in London, as I seem to be doing vaguely, I suppose it really counts for something to be an A.R.A. It remains to be proved; but I shall watch for the symptoms with interest. I have had no end of letters of congratulation from Academicians which would point to the fact of my having more of an affinity with old fogies than I expected. Today I have called on about 20 of them, such is the tradition and it is a curious revelation to find the man whose name and work one has hated and railed at for years, is a man of the world and altogether delightful — for instances Sant, whom one considered the Antichrist.
It is characteristic of you to have saved a sketch of mine from oblivion, and 's approval tickles me although I consider him a noxious humbug — I came across a phrase in my pious reading that must apply to his book which I haven't read: "ce livre cheri des begomiles de Thrace et des cathares de roccident." This, like another quotation from me, that you once investigated at a tea party may be obscene so look out. .
John S. Sargent.
To the same year belongs a letter to Sir Edmund Gosse, which gives in uncompromising terms Sargent's opinion of the famous "Yellow Book."
My dear Gosse,
I have just replied in the negative to a note from Mr. Aubrey Beardsley asking my permission to reproduce your portrait in the "Yellow Book."
From an artistic point of view I dislike that book too much to be willing to seem an habitual contributor.
My only regret is that it should be a propos of your portrait, especially if you ever were willing that it should be reproduced, which I should consider a great compliment. ^ .
Yours very truly,
John S. Sargent.
This was written in the first year of the "Yellow Book's" existence. Aubrey Beardsley was then the art editor, Henry Harland the literary editor. The book still lives vaguely as a symbol of "fin de siecle," decadence and revolutionary move- ments in art and literature. The justification for such a view is not very apparent. Possibly it depended on where Volume I. was opened, and what the reader lighted on. Support for one view might have been found in the title-page of Aubrey Beardsley, the "Stella Maris" of Arthur Symons, and a "Defence of Cosmetics" by Max Beerbohm, in which occurred the ominous passage beginning: "For behold! the Victorian era comes to its end and the day of sancta simplicitas is quite ended. The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new era of artifice." On the other hand, the reader might have been reassured by finding contributions from Henry James, Edmund Gosse, Arthur Benson and Sir Frederick Leighton, P.R.A.
But, however that may be, we must not infer from Sargent's letter that he condemned the art of Aubrey Beardsley; on the contrary, I have seen him linger delightedly over Beardsley's illustrations, commending their rhythm and line and the invention of their composition.
The reception given to the first instalment of his Boston work shown in public was tentative but favourable. The Saturday Review wrote: "It is enough to say that of their originality and solemn impressiveness there can be no question." That, at any rate, is true. The lunette which was exhibited at the Academy represents the children of Israel under their oppressors, Pharaoh and the King of Assyria. It now fills the vault at the north end of the Sargent Hall above the frieze of the prophets. It is a daring composition. Figures and symbols are crowded into the design, but the artist has maintained an astonishing coherence and mastery in the handling of his highly complex scheme. A fine solemnity is apparent in the design, and the figures, oppressors and oppressed alike, are keyed up to a pitch of dramatic intensity. As mural decoration it has been criticized for its want of repose, for its deficiency in that high degree of tranquillity in pattern or colour requisite where painting is to fulfil its appropriate function in the ornament of a building. But its 'originality and impressiveness* are undeniable. With the lunette were exhibited the decorations for the vaulting of the ceiling. These comprise symbolical representations of Astarte, Moloch and Nut, the Egyptian goddess and Mother of the Universe. Here, again, the originality is striking. The complicated symbolism has been woven into a satisfying design. The colouring, in which a bluish ground predominates, is delicate and sensitive in quality; the pattern created is geometric in character, but within its encompassing form it is free, light and varied. These decorations and the lunette were installed in the library in 1895. They were the result of four years of work and many years of study, and marked the first stage in that long task which in 1890 he had taken upon his shoulders. Hundreds of drawings and studies had preceded the final accomplishment. As evidence of his thoroughness we may note that in the early part of the year (1894) he spent many days at the Zoological Gardens making studies of snakes in the reptile house. The Academy public were very puzzled as to what it all meant. The lunette was hung in the cove of the ceiling so as nearly as possible to catch the same light that it would receive in the Boston Library. This of itself provided a conundrum.
By some it was regarded as part of a new scheme of decoration for Burlington House, while others were heard to declare that it had always been there. Even those who knew better were mystified; there was no one to explain, and it certainly did not explain itself. Of this Sargent was well aware, and he wrote to Lady Lewis:
You seem to me really to like my decoration and not to look upon it as a hopeless conundrum as most people do. I was delighted to find that you got some pleasure out of it through your eyes and were not fidgetting about the obscurity of those old symbols. What a tiresome thing a perfectly clear symbol would be.
But where a work is not only finely painted but is in addition incomprehensible, it is well qualified to attract the multitude, and so the lunette and decorations came to be the wonder of the exhibition.