Sargent's Life through his writing, paintings and drawings
IN the same year (1884), while Madame Gautreau from the walls of the Salon was like the goddess Clotho spinning the fate of Sargent's future destiny, his portrait of Mrs. Henry White, exhibited in the Royal Academy, was exciting even more than usual contradiction among the critics. Opinion fluctuated between the extreme condemnation of The Athenceum, which described the picture as "hard, metallic, raw in colour, and without taste in the expression, air and modelling," and the praise of R. A. M. Stevenson, which, though delivered later, represented, as did all that came from his pen, what may be considered the more instructed view of the time. Stevenson found in the picture "that large and noble disposition which we admire so much in the old Masters." "The wavering silhouette," he continued, "of the figure, now firmly detached from and now sliding off into its surroundings, may be followed with pleasure even if held upside down. It falls into a perfect scheme of decorative effect, and yet it relieves from its environment with all the consistency and variety of truth." Mrs. White was the wife of Mr. Henry White, first secretary to the American Embassy in London; she occupied a prominent position in that society of Mayfair, through which Sargent was so soon to paint his way. The portrait was hung in the dining-room of Mr. White's house in Grosvenor Crescent, and there, where it formed the subject of constant discussion, not always well-informed but none the less dogmatic, it fulfilled a missionary and educational purpose, making the name of Sargent familiar to many and gradually enrolling supporters to a new canon of taste in portraiture.
The portrait created that gap in the fence which is so helpful to wealthy patrons of painting seeking for a lead across country which they can follow with security. It seemed at that time as abrupt a departure from the smooth conventions of the portraiture of the Jay as might a Cezanne from a Birkett Foster. The highest praise, perhaps, to which in social circles it was at first considered entitled was the indefinite pronouncement that it was "chic personified in paint." By degrees, however, it won its way and gave a decisive lead, bringing many applicants to Sargent's door. It is worth contrasting the two portraits of this year, that of Madame Gautreau in Paris and that of Mrs. White in London, because they represent two currents in Sargent's painting, to one or other of which he had still definitely to commit himself. The beauty of Madame Gautreau's portrait lies, as has been suggested, in the delicacy and rhythm of the lines, and the sculpturesque and plastic forms which they embody. It is one of the very few of Sargent's pictures in which there is any trace of the Italian influence of which he was so much aware at this time, and which, if rumour speaks correctly, he was ready to admit to a share in his development. In the extreme simplification of the design and in the sensitive line of the profile it is perhaps not fanciful to detect a suggestion of the manner of Piero della Francesca. The picture, which is daring and original, owes little to contemporary Paris influences. Mrs. White's portrait, on the other hand, has for its dominant theme the effect of light on the subject painted, on the planes and ordered tumult of the dress, on the background and accessories, on the features of the model. The form of the furniture is hinted at rather than defined. Sargent has, in fact, in this picture incorporated just so much of the method of the Luminists as he was to carry with him through the rest of his work as an artist. It represents the direction in which he was tending; it is the first presage of his London as distinguished from his Paris manner. He was to revert, in certain instances, to his earlier vision; but from 1884 we can date the growth of his ultimate method of expression. Did the reception accorded the Gautreau portrait influence his outlook ? Nothing seems more improbable; complete sincerity was his most prevailing characteristic. Just as his spoken word was the accurate reflection of his character and thought, so his painting was the inevitable means by which he expressed what he saw; from neither would the clamour of opinion have deflected him in the slightest degree.
In the summer of 1884, after leaving Paris, he painted the picture of the Misses Vickers which was exhibited at the Salon in 1885, and sent to the Academy in 1886. Sargent owed his introduction to the Vickers family to an amateur sculptor and painter named Natop, then working in Paris. The Vickers, quick to appreciate the talent of the painter, became the first English patrons of his art in England. He was invited to Lavington Rectory, which the Vickers had taken, near Petworth, and here he made a study of the children with white lilies, also The Dinner Table, with at it Mr. and Mrs. Albert Vickers, and a portrait of Mrs. Albert Vickers* Everything connected with country life in England was new to him. The climate, the windy skies, the sedate and tranquil landscape, the flowers and vegetation, the placid summer light — all came upon him with the interest of novelty, but without witchery or enticement. The impression made by the trees and scenery of England roused in him no enthusiasm; at the moment his vision was occupied with the gardens and the large white lilies; and his astonishment at the growth of rambling cucumbers was such that he was unable to demur to the suggestion that he must till then have thought they grew in slices. From Lavington he went to Bolsover Hill, Sheffield, the home of another branch of the family, where he remained for three weeks painting the Misses Vickers. At the Academy the picture is authoritatively stated to have been rejected by the judging committee, and only accepted on an intimation from Herkomer that he would resign unless the picture was recalled and hung "on the line. ,, It also obtained a majority in a plebiscite instituted by the Pall Mall Gazette, as the worst picture of the year. It was the painter's first important attempt at a group, and represents three sisters, resembling in this respect his pictures of the Hunters, the Wyndhams and the Achesons. Here, as in the
* His only English portrait before this date was Mrs. JVodehouse Legh (Lady Newton),
painted in Paris.
STUDY OF SWANS.
Hunter and Wyndham groups, he has portrayed the three sisters seated. In none of his other pictures has he succeeded more admirably in producing an entirely natural and familiar arrangement without its being in the least commonplace. No adventitious accessory is introduced. Nothing takes the eye from the grouped figures. It is no formal study. The sisters seem simply to have subsided into those attitudes, precisely as they might have done had no painter been present. This naturalness is more noticeable here than in his later groups, where the arrangement of the figures sometimes looks like a device to produce a required effect. Here the background is no more than the necessary repoussoir for the figures; details are repressed; a deep shadow fills the back of the canvas, broken by a subdued light in the right-hand corner, which, as in the picture of the Boit children, comes from a window at the end of the room. As a matter of fidelity to fact it may be questioned whether it is possible for the light of day to illuminate the figures as it does, without dispelling a good deal of the obscurity in the room — a criticism equally applicable to the picture of the Boit children, but one to which there are obvious answers.
In November, 1884, Sargent was at Bournemouth doing a portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. "Sargent," wrote Steven- son, "has been and painted my portrait: a very nice fellow he is, and is supposed to have done well; it is a poetical but very chicken-boned figure-head, as thus represented. "
In the winter of that year he was back again in Paris. There he was at home among the painters. Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro were among those he saw most often, but Claude Monet was the artist of all others with whom he was on the most friendly terms. The common meeting-ground was the gallery of M. Durand-Ruel, then at 16, Rue Lafitte. Pissaro, at this time under the influence of Paul Signac and Seurat, was breaking away from the Impressionists, and in a lapse which was to prove temporary, was painting in the pointilliste or neo-impressioniste manner. At the Durand-Ruel gallery this method excited lively debates. It met with little approval, and Renoir would greet Pissarro with the ironic salutation of "Bon jour, Seurat." They agreed only in the condemnation of official art, and as to this, unanimity prevailed. Apart from the painters, he saw little of the French; his associates were the Burckhardts, the Boits, William Dana, Julian Story and Miss Strettell (Mrs. Harrison). At the Louvre, where he was a constant visitor, he studied Rubens and the Primitives.
Early in 1885 he moved to London and engaged a studio at 13, Tite Street (subsequently renumbered as 33, Tite Street), of which he took a twenty-one years' lease in 1900. It was the first step in his career as a painter in London. 13, Tite Street had previously belonged to Whistler, who had decorated it with a scheme of yellow, so vehement that it gave a visitor the sensation of standing inside an egg.* At the beginning of 1885 Whistler had moved his studio from Tite Street to 454, Fulham Road.
Beyond Henry James and the American artists then painting in England Sargent knew few people. He was taking a venture- some step. In Paris he had left behind him that cosmopolitan world from which his sitters had been principally drawn. He was little known in England either personally or by reputation, and what was known about him placed him rather in the position of an accused or, at any rate, of a suspect. Did he not come equipped with the French artistic outfit, and was not all French art suspect? Whistler had been bad enough, and here was another American, also trained in the studios of Paris, bringing with him, in all probability, the intolerable provocations of French technique; and, moreover, it was distaste for Paris rather than preference for London that had induced Sargent to change his scene. The citadel that he had set out to capture was not easy. He was twenty-eight years of age, his frame more solid than of yore, and of athletic build, his face now fuller but hand- some and distinguished in feature and expression. His hair and beard were dark; his complexion was ruddy. His eyes were of a vivid grey-blue with a reflective intensity in them when his interest was aroused like one musing upon the page of a book. A musician, a linguist, widely read in the literature of both England and France, and as deeply proficient in the history and theory of art as he was in its practice, he was well equipped for winning his way and overcoming opposition and prejudice. His attitude towards his own talents was marked by slightly amused humility, probably less noticeable during the ardours and aspirations of his youth than later, which, having its root in an innate modesty and genial irony, can never have been entirely absent. Seriously as he regarded art, and high as he put an artist's calling, he had neither the arrogance of the dedicated spirit, nor the pretensions of the prophet. G. F. Watts, R.A., said of himself that his aim was to do for modern thought what Michael Angelo had done for theological thought; such a purpose would have been inconceivable to Sargent, passionately absorbed though he was in painting. His object was to record with the utmost skill attainable the thing as he saw it, without troubling about its ethical significance or, indeed, any significance other than its visual value. Perhaps for this reason he was least successful, when towards the end of his career he was pushed by circumstances into painting to meet a particular demand, to play the part of a laureate on canvas, and to celebrate subjects of the Great War not so interesting to the eye of the painter as exciting to the historian, poet or patriot. But at the outset of his London career no such problems presented themselves. He was there to paint in his own way with only one task before him, to put at the service of art his own vigorous and accomplished technique.
* E. R. and J. Pennell, "The Life of James Whistler,"
SARGENT'S acquaintance with Gloucestershire and the west of England began at Broadway. In 1885 ( he had then been settled in Tite Street some six months) he went with the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey for a boating expedition on the Thames from Oxford to Windsor. At Pangbourne Sargent, who was a fine swimmer, dived from the weir and "struck a spike with his head," Abbey wrote, "cutting a big gash in the top. It has healed wonderfully well, but it was a nasty rap. It was here that he saw the effect of the Chinese lanterns hung among the trees and the beds of lilies. . . . After his head was bound up he knocked it a second time and re- opened the wound." * Abbey insisted on Sargent coming to Broadway to recover, and so in September, 1885, Sargent took up his residence at the Lygon Arms, the seventeenth-century inn in that village. He carried with him a sketch of the effect he had noted on the river. It was the origin (so far, at any rate, as the arrangement of light) of the picture Carnation, Lily y Lily Rose,
In those days Broadway had not added to its serpentine length a tail of modern dwellings; the traveller from the vale of Eve- sham to the Cotswolds was met, at his entrance into the village, by the sight of Russell House, with its tithe barn and old-world aspect.
In 1885 the Millets and Abbey were sharing Farnham House, which lies a few paces higher up the village street. Of this place Sir Edmund Gosse wrote : "The Millets possessed on their domain a mediaeval ruin, a small ecclesiastical edifice, which was very roughly repaired so as to make a kind of refuge for us, and there Henry James and I would write, while Abbey and Millet painted on the floor below and Sargent and Parsons tilted their easels just outside."
* E. V. Lucas, "Life of Edwin Austin Abbey,"
"Letters of Henry James,"
Here in 1885 a group of friends, united by intellectual and artistic interests, foregathered: Edmund Gosse, Henry James, Alfred Parsons, Fred Barnard, Sargent, Abbey, Millet and others. Henry James, then forty-two, had been resident in England since 1876. He had just completed "The Princess Casamassima" and the "Bostonians," which was appearing in the Century Magazine.
After many wanderings he had settled in London, and was slowly accustoming himself to the intellectual atmosphere of England, which after the vivacity and raffinement of Paris had seemed at first "like a sort of glue-pot." Since 1881 Henry James had been writing in Paris appreciative reviews of Sargent's work. In 1884 he wrote to William James: "I have seen several times the gifted Sargent, whose work I admire exceedingly, and who is a remarkably artistic nature and a charming fellow." Their friendship had therefore begun before their meeting at Broadway. But Henry James was not the only man of letters in the party who had learnt to appreciate Sargent's work. In 1880 Sir Edmund Gosse, as a young author and critic, had been sent to Paris by John Morley to write about pictures and statues in the Salon, for the Pall Mall Gazette, and he had contributed an article to the Fortnightly Review on the same subject. He, too, had recognized the genius of Sargent. Up to this time (1885) Sargent's exhibits at the Academy,* and his pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery, had been received with a very tepid measure of approval by the critics. The Spectator ', writing of the Misses Vickers perhaps went further than most of its contemporaries. "And yet," its critic wrote, "when it is all done what good is it ? . . . no human being except a painter can take pleasure in such work as this . . . but genuine lasting pleasure can no man take in what is essentially shallow, pretentious and untrue." To find himself now at Broadway with two distinguished men of letters devoted to his cause, and among fellow-countrymen and enthusiastic admirers, must have seemed to Sargent like sailing into port.
Those who saw the study of the Vickers children at the Academy in 1926 will have realized that it obviously contained the first suggestion for the picture Carnation, Lily y Lily Rose. It was painted at Lavington Rectory in 1884. Two children are seen working in a garden, with tall white lilies, similar to those in the final picture, growing in the background. The vision must have remained latent in the painter's mind, and been evoked by the scene witnessed on the river, the mauve light, produced by twilight and Chinese lanterns, and the white frocks of the two children. Sargent was resolved to paint this scene. At first he took as his model Mrs. Millet's small daughter, aged five, covering her dark hair with a fair golden wig and sketching her in the act of lighting a Chinese lantern at the moment when the sun had set and a flush still hung in the sky. While engaged on the sketch he saw the two Barnard children, then aged seven and eleven, who, with their parents, were living in a house nearby. They were of a more suitable age, and their hair was the exact colour Sargent wanted; he asked Mrs. Barnard to let the children pose. It is the Misses Barnard who figure in the picture. Never for any picture did he do so many studies and sketches. He would hang about like a snapshot photographer to catch the children in attitudes helpful to his main purpose. "Stop as you are," he would suddenly cry as the children were at play, "don't move! I must make a sketch of you," and there and then he would fly off, leaving the children immobile as Lot's wife, to return in a moment with easel, canvas and paint-box.
* A Portrait (1882), Mrs. Henry White (1884), Lady Play/air (1885).
The progress of the picture (Sir Edmund Gosse writes), when once it began to advance, was a matter of excited interest to the whole of our little artist-colony. Everything used to be placed in readiness, the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses, before we began our daily afternoon lawn tennis, in which Sargent took his share. But at the exact moment, which of course came a minute or two earlier each evening, the game was stopped, and the painter was accompanied to the scene of his labours. Instantly, he 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 rap-
idly declining, and then while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight per mitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis.*
These brief sessions every evening went on from August till the beginning of November, and when the evenings grew more chilly Sargent would dress the children in white sweaters which came down to their ankles, over which he pulled the dresses that appear in the picture. He himself would be muffled up like an Arctic explorer. At the same time the roses gradually faded and died, and Marshall and Snelgrove had to be requisitioned for artificial substitutes, which were fixed to the withered bushes. Sargent could be charming with children, natural and easy, without condescension or an appearance of talking down to their level. But he was no indiscriminating worshipper of childhood, and sentimental generalizations on the subject found him an unsympathetic hearer. When harassed by the persistence and too untutored flutterings of an uncongenial child he has even been heard to murmur a regret "for the good old days of Herod." At Broadway for the Christmas festivities of 1886, a cousin of the Barnards, aged nine, was introduced at dinner, immensely trimmed and polished for the occasion. Sargent, beaming down on him, said: "So young and yet so clean." The felicity of the immediate reply, "So old and yet so artistic," secured for the precocious boy a staunch friend. To the Barnard children he was devotedly attached, and the friendship formed with them as children ran rejoicingly through his entire life. Here at Broadway he was drawing rather drastically on their endurance and patience. But he got them interested in the picture, and each day's preparations were an event.
In November, 1885, the unfinished picture was stored in the Millets' barn. When in 1886 the Barnard children returned to Broadway the sittings were resumed.
Tne of the difficulties was the provision of the necessary flowers. When the Millets moved into Russell House a flower bed was cut in the garden and the country was ransacked for roses, carnations and lilies. Sargent, chancing on half an acre
* Letter from Sir Edmund Gosse to the author.
of roses in full bloom in a nursery garden at Willersey, said to the proprietor: "I'D take them all, dig them up and send them along this afternoon. " The letter of which a facsimile is printed opposite shows the artist's own sense of his task. The whole episode illustrates his thoroughness. He left no stone un- turned, he suffered no obstacle to bar his passage, where his art was concerned. When abroad in the same spirit he would cross a glacier, skirt the edge of a chasm or climb a precipice to gain a coign of visual vantage. And yet, even in 1885, in the midst of these activities, he appears to have entertained the thought of giving up art. On this point we have the testimony of Sir Edmund Gosse.
At this time (Broadway, 1885), I saw more of him than at any other time, and if I have anything worth relating it was gathered during these enchanted weeks. In the first place I must say that the moment was a transitional one in the painter's career. He was profoundly dissatisfied with Paris, though I am not sure that I know why. He was determined to shake the dust of it off his shoes. He was certainly unwilling to settle in America, and he looked in vain (for the moment) for any genuine invitation to stay in England. His sitters were all American birds of passage: I recall the Vickers family who kept him copiously occupied. In this juncture, it will perhaps be believed with difficulty that he talked of giving up art altogether. I remember his telling me this in one of our walks, and the astonishment it caused me. Sargent was so exclusively an artist that one could think of no other occupation. "But then," I cried, "whatever will you do?" "Oh," he answered, "I shall go into business." "What kind of business?" I asked in bewilderment. "Oh, I don't know!" with a vague wave of the hand, "or go in for music, don't you know ?" Sir Edmund was impressed by Sargent's comments on pictures; they "showed the extreme independence of his eye. For instance," he continues, "although I believed myself intelligently occupied with contemporary art, and rather proud of my acquaintance with the latest French painting, Sargent's trenchant criticisms quite knocked me off my legs. At that time English taste accepted Gerome's elegant nudities without reserve, and Sargent instructed me that they were all sugar and varnish. But even more surprising to me were the liberties he took with the painters who were the immediate darlings of the Parisian aesthetic press, such as Henner and Rolland and that meteoric genius the unfortunate Bastien-Lepage, much worshipped in the innermost American circles. "Tricks !" Sargent succinctly defined the famous optical concentration of Bastien-Lepage. But most revolutionary for me, was his serene and complete refusal to see anything at all in the works of Alma Tadema, then in the zenith of his fame. " I suppose it's clever," he said, " of course it is clever — like the things you do, don't you know, with a what d'you call — but of course it's not art in any sense whatever," with which cryptic pronouncement I was left awed and shaken. These judgments on fellow- artists were, doubtless, exacerbated by the crisis Sargent was himself passing through, but they were wholly sincere, and they were pronounced without a trace of animosity or passion. Sargent's dislike of Alma Tadema's painting here expressed was accompanied with the highest deference to his knowledge and opinion. There were few artists for whose artistic judgment Sargent entertained such cordial respect, none that he was more ready to consult as a critic. His own practice of painting at this time, interested me, especially as, though I had lived much with artists, the manner of it was quite unfamiliar. Sargent started a new canvas every morning, painting for a couple of hours at a time with the utmost concentration. I do not think that he had worked much in the open air before. He was accustomed to emerge, carrying a large easel, to advance a little way into the open, and then suddenly to plant himself down nowhere in particular, behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field. The process was like that in the game of musical chairs where the player has to stop dead, wherever he may happen to be, directly the piano stops playing. The other painters were all astonished at Sargent's never "selecting" a point of view, but he explained it in his half-inarticulate way. His object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision without the slightest previous "arrangement" of detail, the painter's business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever it may be. In those days, when " subject'* and "composition" were held in much higher honour than they are today, this was a revolutionary doctrine, but Sargent was not moved. His daily plan was to cover the whole of his canvas with a thin coat of colour, so as to make a complete sketch which would dry so rapidly that next morning he might paint another study over it. I often could have wept to see these brilliantly fresh and sparkling sketches ruthlessly sacrified. One of Sargent's theories at this time was that modern painters made a mistake in showing that they know too much about the substances they paint. Of course, Alma Tadema with his marble and his metal, was the eternal instance of this error. Sargent, on the other hand, thought that the artist ought to know nothing whatever about the nature of the object before him ("Ruskin, don't you know — rocks and clouds — silly old thing !"), but should concentrate all his powers on a representation of its appearance. The picture was to be a consistent vision, a reproduction of the area filled by the eye. Hence, in a very curious way, the aspect of a substance became much more real to him than the substance itself. An amusing little instance occurs to me. He was painting, one noon of this radiant August of 1885, in a white- washed farm-yard, into which I strolled for his company, wearing no hat under the cloudless blue sky. As I approached him, Sargent look at me, gave a convulsive plunge in the air with his brush, and said "Oh ! what lovely lilac hair, no one ever saw such beautiful lilac hair !' The blue sky reflected on my sleek dun locks, which no one had ever thought "beautiful" before, had glazed them with colour, and Sargent, grasping another canvas, painted me as I stood laughing, while he ejaculated at intervals, "Oh ! what lovely hair !" The real colour of the hair was nothing, it existed only in the violet varnish which a single step into the shade would destroy for ever."
The unfinished picture of the children had not been named, but one evening while Sargent was at his easel in the garden, a visitor asked what he intended to call it. Sargent happened to be humming the words of a song which they had been singing the previous evening, "Have you seen my Flora pass this way"; one line of it was, "Carnation Lily, Lily Rose/' and that line answered the question.
Music had played a large part in the life of the colony at Broadway. "We have music," Edwin Abbey wrote, "until the house won't stand it. Sargent is going elaborately through Wagner's trilogy, recitatives and all: there are moments when it doesn't seem as if it could be meant for music, but I dare say it is. I've been painting a head. Sargent does it better than I do and quicker, but then he is younger." Miss Strettell (Mrs. L. A. Harrison) had joined the party in 1886, and was a powerful unit in the ranks of the Wagnerians. She and Sargent would play duets by the hour, and came to be known in consequence as "the co-maniacs." "We have really had a gay summer," Abbey wrote, "pretending to work and sometimes working (for there are numberless places with easels in them to hide away in — if you really do want to work — until four, and then tennis until dinner-time, and after dinner dancing and music and various cheering games in the studio — but mostly dancing."
It was at Broadway that Sargent made a full-face drawing of Henry James. The drawing, which pleased no one, was a complete failure and was destroyed, Sargent saying it was "impossible to do justice to a face that was all covered with beard like a bear." The following year he did a fine profile, reproduced first in the "Yellow Book" and then as the frontispiece of Mr. Percy Lubbock's edition of Henry James' "Letters." In the same year, 1886, he painted the portrait of Sir Edmund Gosse, exhibited at the Memorial Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1925.
In October, or late September, 1885, Sargent had interrupted his residence at Broadway by a second visit to Robert Louis Stevenson at Bournemouth. Stevenson had just returned from an expedition to the West Country, during which he had been laid up for several weeks at Exeter by a severe haemorrhage. Back once more at " Skerry vore," he was confronting illness with all his vivacious gaiety and courage. He had just published "Prince Otto," and at the moment he was finishing "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," writing "Olalla" as a Christmas story, and laying the foundation of "Kidnapped." Of the two men, Stevenson, born in 1850, was the elder by six years. It was their last meeting. When Sargent returned to Bournemouth with his parents in 1888, Stevenson had left for San Francisco and the South Seas. There is no record to show whether it was chance or design which led to their meeting and to Sargent's painting the two portraits of him. Probably Henry James brought it about.
Stevenson, at the time of Sargent's visit, was taken up with a criticism of himself by William Archer, which had appeared in a magazine called Time. He regarded it as unjust in certain particulars, and it goaded him into setting forth one aspect, at any rate, of his own philosophy of life.
Can you (he wrote to William Archer) conceive how profoundly I am irritated by the opposite affectation to my own, when I see strong men and rich men bleating about their sorrows and the burthen of life, in a world full of "cancerous paupers" and poor sick children and the fatally bereaved, ay, and down even to such happy creatures as myself, who has yet been obliged to strip himself, one after another, of all the pleasures that he had chosen except smoking (and the days of that I know in my heart ought to be over). I forgot eating, which I still enjoy, and who sees the circle of impotence closing very slowly but quite steadily around him. In my view one dank, dispirited word is harmful, a crime of lese-humanite, a piece of acquired evil; every gay, every bright word or picture, like every pleasant air of music, is a pleasure set afloat: the reader catches it, and, if he be healthy, goes on his way rejoicing; and it is the business of art so to send him, as often as possible.
Some hint of the vitality of this way of taking life speaks in the debonair and whimsical figure that Sargent has caught in the very moment of movement. Here is nothing "dank" or "dispirited," no thought of a closing "circle of impotence"; but a being, who, while lean and haggard with illness, is still for venture and conquest and "as full of spirit as the month of May" — his eye as bright as though he had just seen the Rajah's diamond or heard the call of Silver's parrot. We see him with invention quickening in his brain, his spirit astir with fancy and antic wit; a vivid personality revealed with the intimacy that perhaps a sketch can best attain. R. A. M. Stevenson described the picture as "instinct with life and gesture, to a degree perhaps impossible to render by closer and more explicit workmanship," and Robert Louis himself wrote about it to W. H. Low on October 22, 1885.
Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache: at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that wasoncemy grandfather's but since some months goes by the name of Henry James's, for it was there the novelist loved to sit — adds a touch of poesy and comicality. It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner: my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost is at the extreme other end: between us an open door exhibits my palatial entrance hall and part of my respected staircase. All this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent's: but of course it looks damn queer as a whole.
The picture was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1887, and it is now in the possession of Mrs. Payne Whitney.
Robert Louis Stevenson
THE Broadway days were a beneficent interlude in Sargent's career. When he had severed his links with Paris, but had not yet forged new ones with London, he found there a sheltered corner and an atmosphere of security and encouragement. His position was not unlike that of Henry James, when he, a few years earlier, settled in London. Like James, Sargent was a stranger in a strange country, his art little known, his public not formed, his work not quite in line with recognized standards.
In 1876 Henry James had written to his brother: at a time when my last layers of resistance to a long encroaching weariness and satiety with the French mind and its utterance has fallen from me like a garment. I have done with 'em for ever, and am turning English all over. I desire only to feed on English life and the contact of English minds. Easy and smooth-flowing as life is in Paris, I would throw it over tomorrow for an even very small chance to plant myself for a while in England. If I had but a single good friend in London I would go there.
Nine years had seen Henry James securely established, and in spite of the "glue-pot" atmosphere of social England, he felt his environment was congenial to the pursuit of his art. His experience was of profit to Sargent. Sargent could also draw encouragement from the artistic status of Abbey, Millet and Boughton. London is not easily taken by storm, its walls need more than a blast of trumpets before they will fall, but once a recognition has been won, a stranger probably has a better chance of being appreciated in London than in any other city in the world. From Holbein to Sargent, painter after painter from across the Channel has established himself in England, found a host of patrons, and built up fame and fortune. Taste in England is often shy of new developments in art; when once it has conquered its shyness, it is never niggardly in approbation. It throws off its insularity and reserve. Artists and public applaud with generosity and without regard to nationality or origin. This may have been less true of the eighties, but even then, if the innovator in art could survive the blows levelled at him by the upholders of conservative and academic standards he could safely count on receiving agenerous measure of praise. Whistler, who had accompanied innovation and delayed his own recognition by a fierce fusillade of provocative wit, was beginning to come into his own, and in 1885 had been elected to the British Society of Artists. Any- thing, however, that made acclimatization to English life easier was to the good. That is what Broadway did for Sargent.
Spending as he did so many months there, it is surprising that he should not have painted the countryside more often. He was so deeply immersed in the technique of painting and so readily responsive that it might have been expected that he would have found many subjects in the neighbourhood. But with the exception of three or four small canvases, one of which, entitled Broadway, was hung at the Academy Exhibition of 1925, nothing survives to show that he was ever outside London. What is the explanation ? From the first, accustomed to sharp contrasts and a uniformly clear atmosphere, to the challenge of stable and high-keyed values, his eye was perhaps too little adjusted to the subtle effects of English landscape, its fleeting impressions of light and shade, its delicate relation of values and its subdued distances. English scenery does not proclaim its glories, but whispers its enchantments, and yields its secrets only to those whose sensibilities are tuned by association, sentiment and training to respond. Its waters do not glitter and sparkle in fierce sunlight; its trees do not push skyward, secure from winter storms; it is not rich in terraces and marbles gleaming under blue skies and transparent air; white oxen do not plough the fields; its most brilliant colours are tempered by an atmosphere enchantingly its own. Land- scape, indeed, is as national as customs, modes of thought and language itself, and no cosmopolitan has the key. It may, in- deed, be questioned whether any painter from Titian to D. Y. Cameron or any poet from Dante to Robert Bridges has rendered the landscape of a country other than his own in terms that completely express just that element of vision which is special to the native outlook. The Frenchman, when he sets out to paint the Thames Valley, or the Englishman when he takes the Loire for his theme, is not speaking his native tongue. He is a translator. We need only instance Turner in Switzerland, Bonington and Richard Wilson in Italy, Monet in England.
We are in the habit of attributing to scenery the qualities implied by the words grand and awful, romantic, melancholy, picturesque or smiling, and there is also scenery which is sentimental, with a special psychology of its own. It is the psycho- logical significance which only the supreme artist, who is also the native artist, can capture. Need we then be surprised that Sargent, a stranger to this country, with a temperament taught by habit to mature artistically only in the full definition of sunny scenes, should have found little in this visible world of England to excite his sympathy ? His American descent, though filtered through the studios and galleries of the Continent and diluted by the educational ingredients of Europe, was nevertheless a factor to be reckoned with. And with such a descent we do not as a rule connect the mood of pensiveness and "poetic reverie" that we associate with English landscape.
The forms "netted in a silver haze," the colours, the half- tones and dim tinted stains of English landscapes, the Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills, And cattle grazing in the watered vales, the scenes, in fact, that have inspired the painters and poets of England had small appeal for Sargent as an artist. For one thing, he cordially disliked the quality of English light. The most successful picture which he painted out of doors in England, he succeeded in painting only with the assistance of a Chinese lantern. But in this canvas, by taking the half light and hues of failing day and by adding a reflection from the artificial illumination, he obtained a subtlety and delicacy of colouring reminiscent of his earliest work, and produced what will always rank as one of his great achievements.
On the other hand, in his picture Broadway already referred to he cannot be said to have given a true rendering of English landscape. He has imported into his scheme of colour and his treatment of the tones a Southern atmosphere. The emphatic handling gives an air of finality, as if the scene always had been and always would be the same, as if no season could alter its texture, no cloud subdue its colour. It is, in fact, deficient in some of the special qualities which have been noted as characteristic of English scenery. But Sargent has sometimes a startling way of confounding summary judgments. A few yards from the picture Broadway was hanging at the Academy a picture painted at Whitby in 1896. A grey sea, a cloudy day, brown fishing-boats in the middle distance under full sail — here was the very atmosphere of the English coast; here was a com- position that murmured the poetry of the sea, quiet and serene, with mystery in the colour, the open sky and the movement of the ships. It is as if he had recalled his manner of a bygone time to show that the lyrical element was within his range. There is also the picture Home Fields, painted in 1885, now in the Detroit Institute of Art, which is said to reproduce that coolness of colour and treatment so uncommon in his landscapes. But of such moods his painting offers only widely scattered evidence. His picture Game of Bowls at Ightham Moat, painted when he first came to England, may also be cited. Here he has caught English scenery, not at its best by any means, but in a grave and dreary mood, low in key and tone, but not lacking in truth either of colour or general effect. Moreover, the game goes forward as though the players themselves were affected by the opacity of the atmosphere.
Sargent was curiously indifferent to the trees and woods of England; the trees to him were not Those green robed senators of mighty woods Tall oaks, branch charmed by the earnest stars," but, as he once described them with their spreading skirts of verdure in the park of Sutton Place, "old Victorian ladies going perpetually to church in a land where it is always Sunday afternoon."
The mythic oaks and elm trees standing out Self poised upon their prodigy of shade had no charm for him. He left them alone. But there is no reason to regret that he passed English landscape by. The field for his genius was and remained the countries where the atmosphere lent no mystery to what he saw, where subjects he wished to represent stood out in all the opulence of form and colour. "You speak of Lord Byron and me," wrote Keats in one of his letters. "There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees, I describe what I imagine." Sargent described what he saw. He painted, if such an expression may be allowed in this connection, straight from the shoulder. Both in his water-colours and oils he transposes beauty of fact into a key of his own, direct, emphatic and suggestive, often satisfying in design, and rich in colour and decorative value. When he paints in Italy he does not paint fiction or romance; in his renderings of Venice we shall find little sense of the past, we shall look in vain in his cypress groves for the vision of a hamadryad or in his fountains for the glimpse of a naiad; all is rich and vivid and open to the day, painted with a fine sincerity of mind, the work of a painter who felt the immediate impression of the moment with an intensity that called for an instant response. There is no "sigh for what is not," no reaching out for what is "before or after," the visible subject is recorded with consummate facility and accomplishment, with a swiftness and decision that exclude hesitation, with an effect that has an air of inevitableness, and abundant in vitality. Years of study and tireless work had made him the master of means wherewith he was able to say exactly what he had to say, whether by indication or description.