Sargent's Life through his writing, paintings and drawings
THE Sargents spent the winter of 1871-72 in Dresden, the summer of 1872 in the usual to-and-fro among the resorts of Switzerland and the Tyrol. In the autumn they were back again in Florence in the Villino della Terre Via dei Serragli. Edward Clifford the artist was a visitor to Florence that winter, and like everyone who saw Sargent's work he realized that it held promise of an exceptional talent. It was already more or less understood that Sargent should study in Paris. Clifford opposed the idea and begged that he should come as a pupil to London. The vogue of respectability was just then at its height in England; Paris and respectability were regarded as inconsistent. The study of French art meant Montmartre and the Latin Quarter and if there was something sinister in the ordinary life of Paris, student life was the summit of all that was detrimental. To attempt an artistic education in that capital was to ride for a certain fall. This was the view of the kindly Edward Clifford, and he impressed it on the Sargents with the fervour of a prophet. He offered the security of his own studio as an alternative. He was eloquent over the sheltered advantages of an education in England. His appeal was sincere and tinged with the zeal of a puritanic faith. The so-called "wicked nineties" were still well below the horizon. The choice therefore lay between London with its solid repute and its artistic atmosphere, which, if in some respects uninspiring, was at any rate staid and securely academic, and Paris with its crying dangers but with its studios at the moment quick with experiment and new ideas. The choice for parents of that date and with New England traditions was no easy one to make. It cannot have been without misgiving that Mr. Sargent decided for Paris; a decision which, if we take into account his views, was proof of the liberality of his judgment and his belief in his son. Never was foresight better rewarded.
In the interval the Sargents pursued their usual wanderings, and in February, 1874, the year which was to see Sargent established in Paris, they took apartments on the Grand Canal, Venice. Two letters of this date, written to his cousin Mrs. Austin, record some of his early estimations of old Masters, and the difficulties which attended the study of art in Florence. His admiration for Tintoretto never varied; to the end of his days Tintoretto remained for him one of the supreme masters of painting.
15, Via Magenta, Florence,
Dear Mrs. Austin,
I thank you very much for your kind letter and for your kindness in taking the trouble to get me these photographs, which I have always regretted not having bought while I was in Dresden.
According to your letter, I send back the two little ones, with a thaler note, and beg you to get me three of the ten groschen size. No. 78 is the Adoration which I particularly desired, but the other one, No. 82, is almost as beautiful, so, if you please, I shall have them both, and another picture also by Paul Veronese, the finding of Moses this is, if I remember rightly in the third large Italian room, on the left and perhaps opposite the Correggios. You will know it by the very fine figure of the princess, leaning on another woman. These three at 10 gr will make a thaler exactly, unless the Thaler has changed its value of 30 gr. since we were in Dresden.
I am sorry to hear that the magnificent Tintoretto has not been photographed, for I remember it as being very fine, but I must content myself with a little outline of the principal female figure in one of my Dresden Sketchbooks.
Since seeing that picture, I have learned in Venice to admire Tinto- retto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michael Angelo and Titian, whose beauties it was his aim to unite. If my artistic cousin Mary would like to read about Tintoretto, and know the opinion his contemporaries had of him, before his pictures had blackened and faded, and before the great pictures on the ceiling of San Rocco in Venice were used as sieves for rain water which was collected in buckets on the floor, she may find in the royal library an old Italian book entitled "Le Maraviglie dell' Arte, ovvero Vite degli Illustri pittori Veneti e dello Stato" by Ridolfi. This book contains detailed biographical sketches of Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto besides other Venetian painters, and expresses the then current belief that Tintoretto was rarely equalled and never surpassed by Paul Veronese. I hope Mary keeps up her drawing and frequents the "Sammlung der Gipsabgusse" where she will find no end of models in heads and statues. Thanking you again for your kindness I re- main, with much love from all to all,
Your affect ionate cousin,
John S. Sargent.
15, Via Magenta, Florence,
Dear Mrs. Austin,
I have been waiting all this time to send this letter with one from Mama but she has been hindered by severe colds and getting ready to leave, and I will no longer postpone thanking you for the beautiful photos that you were so kind as to send me.
We are packing up in order to leave in the first week in May but the date of our departure is rendered rather uncertain by the provoking fact of my having sprained my ankle very severely two weeks ago on the stairs of the Academy; I am yet unable to use my right foot, and this prevents our leaving on the first of May as we had intended. Then our destination has been changed by reports of Cholera in Venice and of unique artistic training in Paris, so that we are bound for the latter place where we hope we may perhaps meet you. The Academy in Paris is probably better than the one here and we hear that the French artists undoubtedly the best now-a-days, are willing to take pupils in their studios. I do not think however, that I am sufficiently advanced to enter a studio now, and I will probably have to study another year at the Academy. We go to Paris now for a short time to make enquiries about this, which will decide whether we go to Paris or not for next winter. This unhappy Accademiadelle Belle Arti in Florence is the most unsatisfactory institution imaginable, human ingenuity has never contrived anything so unsatisfactory. It was closed for two months from Christmas to March while the Professors and the Minister of Public Instruction deliberated a thorough reform in its organisation, and when reopened the only perceptible change was that we, the students from the cast, were left without a Master, while the former Professor vacillated and still vacillates between resigning and continuing his instructions. However, this has been of no more consequence to me since my sprained ankle keeps me at home where I have a very handsome Neapolitan model to draw and paint, who plays on the Zampogna and tamburino and dances tarantellas for us when he is tired of sitting. I hope Mary perseveres in the Fine Arts and compels
her model to dance when he is tired.
Yr. affectionate cousin,
John S. Sargent.
In spite of cholera scares Venice was their first objective. Here they met Whistler, who, born in 1834, was now in his fortieth year. It was to prove a critical year in the history of Whistler's fame. He had before this made his headquarters in London, and in June he was to hold an exhibition of his works at 48, Pall Mall. His work, although accepted on more than one occasion by the Royal Academy, had each year tended to create a little more bewilderment amongst the critics, who, beginning with guarded benediction, were now in 1874 emerging into a state of declared and open disapproval. The picture of his mother had been in the first instance rejected by the Committee of the Royal Academy in 1872, and subsequently accepted only in consequence of a threat of resignation by Sir William Boxall, a member of the Council. Not only, therefore, was he ill at ease with established Academic opinion, and at war with the critics, but he had already mystified and estranged the public. He was now contemplating a further challenge to the art world of London, by an exhibition of his collected works destined to be aggravated by his adopting a nomenclature for his pictures borrowed from the vocabulary of music. The device was in- tended to emphasize the significance of individual pictures. Thus the famous portrait of Miss Alexander had as an explanatory title Harmony in Grey and Green, while other pictures were described as Symphonies, Arrangements, Variations, or in the case of the picture of Cremorne at Night, the subject of Ruskin's hysterical attack, as Nocturnes, It was a novel departure, by no means likely to make converts or temper the hostility he had aroused. In any case, Whistler stood apart from the main cur- rent of English painting. His work was as remote from the minute accuracy of the Pre-Raphaelites as it was from the pictorial anecdotes then in fashion on the walls of the Academy.
To the older generation, in the words of Millais, he was "a great power of mischief among younger men." Conciliation in any form was not one of the gentle arts which his genius was at any time ready to practise. He was essentially a fighter. The battle he was waging in London had certain resemblances to the struggle going on in Paris. But whereas in London he was single-handed, in Paris the innovators could count on numbers.
Whistler was enthusiastic over his young compatriot's water- colours and drawings. Thus began distinctly friendly relations between them which lasted till the elder artist's death in 1903. Later, when Sargent was as yet little heard of in England, Whistler was one of the earliest to direct attention to his work. In 1894 Sargent, a consistent admirer of Whistler's painting, together with St. Gaudens, tried to get him to decorate one of the large panels on the stairs of the Boston Library. Whistler described this as an act of "rare and noble camaraderie."* The project hung fire. He got as far as making notes for the design, which he told Mr. Pennell was to be a peacock ten feet high; but the scheme never matured. Sargent used to say that Whistler's use of paint was so exquisite that if a piece of canvas were cut out of one of his pictures one would find that it was in itself a thing of beauty by the very texture and substance into which it had been trans- formed by his brush. It has more than once been said that the two painters were far from friendly to one another. This is contrary to the fact. Temperamentally it is true, they differed profoundly. There was in Whistler an overt antagonism to opinions and accomplishments with which he was not in sympathy that to Sargent was incomprehensible. Nor was his appreciation of Sargent's mature work by any means enthusiastic. Yet, unlike as the two men were in most respects, their relations were uniformly friendly, and no one enjoyed Whistler's devastating wit more than Sargent.
To someone who brought a commission to Whistler and with consummate folly insisted that the suggested picture should be a "serious work," he retorted that "he could not break with the tradition of a lifetime.' ' That was a vindication that entirely delighted Sargent. It was the sort of rebuke that anyone who tampered so clumsily with an artist's susceptibilities thoroughly deserved. But Sargent had not got Whistler's ruthlessness. He could never have replied to the student who said his trouble was to paint what he saw. "Your trouble will begin when you see what you paint."
* E. R. and J. Pennell, "The Whistler Journal," p. 34.
The summer of 1874 was spent by the Sargent family at Benzeval. In August they moved to Paris and took up their residence at 52, Rue Abbatrice. It was the official beginning of Sargent's career as a painter. He at once started work at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which was then presided over by M. Yvon. From the following it will be seen that he was very soon faced with an examination, and that the prospect filled him with all the normal perturbations and misgivings.
52, Rue Abbatrice,
My Dear Ben,
Caro il mio ben. I am in the midst of my exam and very busy consequently I can only write a few lines to thank you for your kind and interesting letter. The exam is the Concours de Place for the life school of M. Yvon and it seems unreasonably long difficult and terrible. It began on the 26th of September and two weeks are still to come. The epreuves de Perspective et d Anatomie are over; I wish I might say as much for the Dessin d'Ornement which is in store for us tomorrow morning. But the supreme moment is one of twelve hours wherein we must make a finished drawing of the human form divine.
Heaven only knows whether I shall get through; also Heaven alone could bring such a miracle to pass; therefore let us implore its aid and do our best. After this Concours my regular winter work will commence at the Atelier.
Has this summer been pleasant to you ? I have never passed a more delightful one. We have been as you know in the habit of spending our summer in the land of rocks and cheeses as Violet calls it, and the sea shore has been such a pleasant change that I have no doubt we will return to Normandy or Brittany next year.
We look forward with much pleasure to your flying visit next Xmas. Please take pains to inject your eye with belladonna that we may judge if your description is as accurate as it is amusing.
Do you know whether that restless impetuous Joe Francia who bores one with repeated visits is in Paris ? I should like to see what he has been painting.
And now, dear Old Ben, I must close. Please divide our best love between your mother and yourself and Believe me ever
Yr. very affect, old friend,
John S. Sargent.
In October he entered the studio of Carolus Duran, then the foremost portrait painter in Paris.
Few painters have reached success by steeper paths than Carolus Duran. He was born at Lille on July 4, 1837, and was of Spanish descent through his paternal grandfather. In his native town he was entered as a pupil of the painter Souchon, who in his student days had been a pupil of David. His promise was unmistakable, but his poverty was great. After bitter struggles he amassed just sufficient money to seek in 1858 the wider field of Paris. Here his talents were unrecognized; he was unable to earn a livelihood. He attended not at the Ecole des Beaux Arts but at the Academie Suisse, where he met Fantin Latour, and where teaching meant, in the main, leaving pupils to work out their own salvation. He frequented the Louvre, and by copying well-known pictures for a few francs he was able to keep himself from actual want. His hope was fast failing. But he believed in himself, and he was gifted with a spirit not easily vanquished. At the blackest moment in i860 he returned to Lille, where with his picture Visite au Convalescent he won the Wicar prize. With the money he set out for Italy. There in the monastery of Subiaco, in the neighbourhood of Rome, he shut himself up to study the elements of his art. Thence he returned to Paris to experience a further period of trial and discouragement. He could find no patron and he was unable to obtain orders.
He was now twenty-five years of age, of medium height, with regular and handsome features and dark eyes. His dark hair was parted in the middle with a curl thrown out on each side of his forehead, and he wore a Velasquez beard, which gave an outward sign of his Spanish origin. He did not falter in the will to succeed. In 1865 he was back at Lille painting portraits for 150 francs apiece. Then in 1866 he produced a picture, UAssassin'e, strongly marked by the influence of Courbet and now in the museum at Lille, which was purchased for 5,000 francs. This picture proved the turning-point in his career. The canvas shows a group of peasants gathered about a stretcher on which lies the body of a murdered man. In the grouping of the onlookers, in the record of their emotions, varying from horror to mere curiosity, and in the concentration of interest brought about by the light on the victim there is a robust and dramatic power -- but the picture denotes no departure from the prevailing French tradition.
The purchase of the picture enabled Carolus Duran to visit Spain. Here he fell under the influence of Velasquez. After six months he returned to Paris, dominated by his impressions of the Spanish master, whose works he had assiduously copied. In 1869, under this new inspiration, he painted La Dame au Gant, a portrait of Madame Duran. With this picture his reputation was established. He moved from success to success, becoming the most popular portrait painter in Paris. Fortune, as if to atone, now showered on him prosperity and success. He became a dominant figure in Paris life. Never free from a certain affectation (had he not changed his name from Charles Durand to Carolus Duran ?) and with an air which was slightly flamboyant, he was the victim of not a few caricatures and popular gibes. His habit of caracoling like a riding master in the Bois de Boulogne on a prancing barb earned him the title of Caracolus Duran; his skill at billiards that of Carambolus Duran. His mastery of the guitar, his proficiency with the foils, his good looks, his sumptuous home in the Champs Elysees, were interpreted at times as a love of ostentation and excited the envy and criticism of those outside the circle of his friends.
In 1874, the year in which Sargent entered his studio, he held an exhibition of his portraits. It is mainly as a portrait painter that he survives to-day, though he worked in other fields as well. In France Carolus Duran was the favourite of the critics. He was acclaimed as a colourist; his portraits were applauded for their incisive force, for the skill with which he laid emphasis on revealing characteristics, for his power of detaching the sitter from superfluous accessories and decor and bringing him into a relation personal with the spectator.
He was the portrayer of the society of his time, of its silks and its fashions, its moods and its temper. It was a world that thought well of itself and its equipment, an atmosphere that was at least on the surface untroubled and serene. Duran does not dive too deeply into its significance. Men of letters and science, politicians and leaders of the fashionable faubourgs, pass before him and are arrested on his canvases -- easy, representative, distinguished people, smooth and deliberate in their outlook on the world. The tradition of "Academisme" is there, but it is altered, relieved of many of its conventions and some of its dullness.
The atelier* was "run" by some American students, who made a fixed charge to cover expenses. Duran, very much as a surgeon at a hospital, gave his services for nothing. That was the general practice, to which the well-known studio of Julien was one of the few exceptions. A painter would look to a return for his services in the prestige of his studio, and the missionary work done on his behalf by his students. In all cases the advancement of art was a sufficient pretext. The pupils of the atelier Duran worked in a studio on the Boulevard Montparnasse. A model would be drawn on Monday and painting would begin on Tuesday. Twice a week, generally on Tuesday and Friday, Duran himself would descend from Olympus to review the work of his pupils. The visit was a very formal affair. Nothing was omitted that could add prestige to the occasion. The Master's entry was the signal for the pupils to rise in their places; then while they stood beside their easels he would approach one or other of them, and after a moment's inspection of their work and without turning round, hold out his hand for the brush or pencil with which the pupil stood ready: having made his corrections he would pass on to a neighbouring easel. His observations were brief and his commendations exceedingly rare. On one occasion a newly arrived pupil standing by his easel and seeing Duran's hand extended after an examination of his work, in the customary way for brush or pencil, assumed that the gesture had a congratulatory purpose. He accordingly seized the Master's hand with undisguised pleasure. The mistake was not forgiven. The sanctity of the routine had to be protected from shocks of such a kind. Shortly afterwards the offending novice left to achieve distinction in a career remote from art. One day a week the whole class would adjourn to Duran's own studio, where, with the awe in those days more easily inspired, they would watch the Master at work. No great cordiality seems to have existed between Duran and his pupils. They were there to learn and he was there to teach, and that was the beginning and end of it.
* Mr. Joseph Farquharson, R.A., and Mr. C. M. Newton, both at one time in the atelier have kindly supplied me with the facts.
During Sargent's first year of attendance R. A. M. Stevenson ( 1 847-1900) was a pupil. Stevenson, after graduating at Cam bridge in 1871, had been studying at the ficole des Beaux Arts, Antwerp. Robert Louis Stevenson has described his cousin Bob in "Talk and Talkers" under the guise of "Spring Heel'd Jack." An atelier presided over by Carolus Duran was no place for spring heels. The conversation of "R. A. M." was iconoclastic and revolutionary, "glancing high like a meteor and making light in darkness"; to Academism it was sedition. It kept Duran uneasy. Thirty-two years later Sargent was asked by Mr. D. S. MacColl to exert his influence in obtaining a pension for Stevenson's widow. He wrote as follows:
My dear MacColl,
Your schemes seem to be always of the best and I will be delighted to help in this one if I can. To begin with I shall at once read the book,* which I am sorry to say I have not done. But even without this book I think he has the greatest claim to public gratitude for his admirable teaching.
* R. A. M. Stevenson, "Velasquez."
Throughout his life he gave his extraordinary powers and talent to the purpose of letting others into the secret and there must be many who are grateful. ...
John S. Sargent.
Later he wrote again:
My dear MacColl,
... I am afraid you would be disappointed in the slightness of my acquaintance with R. A. M. Stevenson and of my recollections of him in the old days, when for a year I was with him in Carolus Duran's studio which he left long before I did. Really my principal impression was that of having all my boyish ideals on art smashed by him (a good riddance) and being horrified by his free thought and independence -- of course later on I saw the truth of what he used to say -- unfortunately I have hardly ever met him for the last twenty years, but I appreciate him now much more than I did when we were thrown together.
I am very glad that the pension is granted to his widow. At your suggestion and Colvin's I wrote to Balfour who replied after he had read the book, saying that it was settled. He thought the book very interesting and seemed particularly pleased that "hating Burne Jones* work as he must have done" he had been so sparing of censure. I was afraid that the allusion to that school and to the attitude of the cultivated person towards art would have made him send the widow to Botany Bay.
John S. Sargent.
Luxembourg Gardens (Paris) at Twilight
It is evident that in his student days Sargent shared the apprehension excited in the studio by this brilliant free-spoken lover of the arts. To Duran, at any rate, it must have been a relief when Stevenson with "his gusts of talk and thunderclaps of contradiction'* passed out into the freer air of Barbizon and Grez. All the same, Stevenson's "Velasquez" was one of the few criticisms on painters for which Sargent had any liking. Indeed, Stevenson and Fromentin were the only two among deceased critics to whom I ever heard him refer. "En art tout ce qui n'est pas indispensable est nuisible" was one of the precepts which Duran had formulated after his study of Velasquez. It became one of the texts of his studio. " Mon but a ete toujours celui-la: exprimer le maximum au moyen du minimum" was the later variant of the same idea. "Cherchez la demi-teinte" he would add, "mettez quelques accents, et puis les lumieres." But above all, to his pupils his advice was "Velas- quez, Velasquez, Velasquez, etudiez sans relache Velasquez." He urged them to make copies of the pictures of Velasquez in the Louvre, not laborious copies, but copies "au premier coup." In painting a picture he would retreat a few steps from the canvas and then once more advance with his brush balanced in his hand as though it were a rapier and he were engaged in a bout with a fencing-master -- these gestures were often accompanied by appeals to the shade of Velasquez. Those who watched Sargent painting in his studio will be reminded of his habit of stepping backwards after almost every stroke of the brush on the canvas, and the track of his paces so worn on the carpet that it suggested a sheep-run through the heather. He too, when in difficulties, had a sort of battle cry of "Daemons, daemons" with which he would dash at his canvas.
It was, then, to such a workshop and under such a master that Sargent at the age of eighteen was admitted as a pupil, and the question arises, What did Sargent owe to the teaching of Duran ? The question is best answered by remembering Duran's precepts and seeing how far they are reflected in Sargent's art. It has already been shown how Duran insisted on the study of Velasquez and the omission in art of all that was not essential to the realization of the central purpose of a painting. He had himself travelled far from the sharp contrast of values by which he had dramatized his picture L'Assassine. He had got rid of his tendency to be spectacular. From Velasquez he had learnt to simplify. His teaching was focussed on the study of values and half-tones -- above all, half-tones. Here lies, he would say, the secret of painting, in the half-tone of each plane, in economizing the accents and in the handling of the lights so that they should play their part in the picture only with a palpable and necessary significance. Other things were subordinate. If Sargent excels in these respects, it is sufficient to recall the fact that they formed the core of Duran's instruction. There is no need to put his influence higher. Few pupils in painting who have the talent to absorb their master's teaching fail in the long run to outgrow his influence and to progress beyond and outside it on lines of their own.
Sargent himself always recognized his debt to the teaching of Duran. At the height of his fame, when looking at a portrait by a younger painter, he observed to Mr. William James: "That has value. I wonder who taught him to do that. I thought Carolus was the only man who taught that. He couldn't do it himself, but he could teach it." Again, when Mr. James asked him how to avoid false accents he said: "You must classify the values. If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it towards the darks -- so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks -- you avoid false accents. That's what Carolus taught me. And Franz Hals -- it's hard to find anyone who knew more about oil-paint than Franz Hals -- and that was his procedure. Of course, a sketch is different. You don't mind false accents there. But once you have made them in something which you wish to carry jar , in order to correct them you have to deal with both sides of them and get into a lot of trouble. So that's the best method for anything you wish to carry far in oil- paint." Mr. George Moore, in one of the most illuminating essays in "Modern Painting," said: "In 1830 values came upon France like a religion. Rembrandt was the new Messiah, Holland was the Holy Land, and disciples were busy dispensing the propaganda in every studio." The religion had no more ardent apostle than Carolus Duran.