Sargent's Life through his writing, paintings and drawings
WHEN Mr. John Collier was writing his book on "The Art of Portrait Painting" he asked Sargent for an account of his methods. Sargent replied: "As to describing my procedure, I find the greatest difficulty in making it clear to pupils, even with the palette and brushes in hand and with the model before one, and to serve it up in the abstract seems to me hopeless."
With the assistance, however, of two of his former pupils, Miss Heyneman and Mr. Henry Haley, it is possible to obtain some idea of his methods.
When he first undertook to criticise Miss Heyneman's work he insisted that she should draw from models and not from friends.
"If you paint your friends, they and you are chiefly concerned about the likeness. You can't discard a canvas when you please and begin anew - you can't go on indefinitely till you have solved a problem." He disapproved (Miss Heyneman continues) of my palette and brushes. On the palette the paints had not been put out with any system. "You do not want dabs of colour," he said, "you want plenty of paint to paint with." Then the brushes came in for derision. "No wonder your painting is like feathers if you use these." Having scraped the palette clean he put out enough paint so it seemed for a dozen pictures. "Painting is quite hard enough" he said "without adding to your difficulties by keeping your tools in bad condition. You want good thick brushes that will hold the paint and that will resist in a sense the stroke on the canvas." He then with a bit of charcoal placed the head with no more than a few careful lines over which he passed a rag, so that it was on a perfectly clean greyish coloured canvas (which he preferred) faintly showing where the lines had been that he began to paint. At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background) - to indicate the mass of the hair and the tone of the dress. The features were not even suggested. This was a matter of a few moments. For the rest he used his colour without a medium of any kind, neither oil, turpentine or any admixture. "The thicker you paint, the more your colour flows" he explained. He had put in this general outline very rapidly hardly more than smudges, but from the moment he that began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall. ... To watch the head develop from the start was like the sudden lifting of a blind in a dark room. . . . Every stage was a revelation. For one thing he put his easel directly next to the sitter so that when he walked back from it he saw the canvas and the original in the same light, at the same distance, at the same angle of vision. . . . He aimed at once for the true general tone of the background, of the hair and for the transition tone between the two. He showed me how the light flowed over the surface of the cheek into the background itself.
At first he worked only for the middle tones, to model in large planes, as he would have done had the head been an apple. In short, he painted, as a sculptor models, for the great masses first, but with this difference that the sculptor can roughly lump in his head and cut it down afterwards, while the painter, by the limitations of his material, is bound to work instantly for an absolute precision of mass, in the colour and outline he intends to preserve. Economy of effort in every way, he preached, the sharpest self-control the fewest strokes possible to express a fact, the least slapping about of purposeless paint. He believed, with Carolus Duran, that painting was a science which it was necessary to acquire in order to make of it an art. "You must draw with your brush," he said, " as readily, as unconsciously almost as you draw with your pencil." He advised doing a head for a portrait slightly under life-size to counteract the tendency to paint larger than life. Even so, he laid in a head slightly larger than he intended to leave it, so that he could model the edges with and into the background.
The hills of paint vanished from the palette yet there was no heaviness on the canvas; although the shadow was painted as heavily as the light, it retained its transparency. "If you see a thing trans- parent, paint it transparent; don't get the effect by a thin stain showing the canvas through. That's a mere trick. "The more delicate the transition the more you must study it for the exact tone" The lightness and certainty of his touch was marvellous to behold. Never was there any painter who could indicate a mouth with more subtlety, with more mobility, or with keener differentiation. As he painted it, the mouth bloomed out of the face, an integral part of it, not, as in the great majority of portraits, painted on it, a separate thing. He showed how much could be expressed in painting the form of the brow, the cheekbones, and the moving muscles around the eyes and mouth, where the character betrayed itself most readily; and under his hands, a head would be an amazing likeness long before he had so much as indicated the features themselves. In fact, it seemed to me the mouth and nose just happened with the modelling of the cheeks, and one eye, living luminous, had been placed in the socket so carefully prepared for it (like a poached egg dropped on a plate, he described the process), when a clock in the neighbourhood struck and Mr. Sargent was suddenly reminded that he had a late appointment with a sitter. In his absorption he had quite forgotten it. He hated to leave the canvas. " If only one had oneself under perfect control," he once said to me, "one could always paint a thing, finally in one sitting." (Now and then he accomplished this.) "Not that you are to attempt this," he admonished me, "if you work on a head for a week without indicating the features you will have learnt something about the modelling of the head."
Every brush stroke while he painted had modelled the head or further simplified it. He was careful to insist that there were many roads to Rome, that beautiful painting would be the result of any method or no method, but he was convinced that by the method he advocated, and followed all his life, a freedom could be acquired, a technical mastery that left the mind at liberty to concentrate on a deeper or more subtle expression.
I had been taught to paint a head in three separate stages, each one repeating — in charcoal, in thin colour-wash and in paint — the same things. By the new method the head developed by one process. Till almost the end there had been no features nor accents, simply a solid shape growing out of and into a background with which it was one. When at last he did put them each accent was studied with an intensity that kept his brush poised in mid-air till eye and hand had steadied to one purpose, and then . . . bling ! the stroke resounded almost like a note of music. It annoyed him very much if the accents were carelessly indicated without accurate consideration of their comparative importance. They were, in a way, the nails upon which the whole structure depended for solidity.
Miss Heyneman subsequently left a study she had made, at Sargent's studio with a note begging him to write, "yes" or "no," according to whether he approved or not. He wrote the next day:
" I think your study shows great progress — much better values and
consequently greater breath of effect with less monotony in the detail. I still think you ought to paint thicker — paint all the half tones and general passages quite thick — and always paint one thing into another and not side by side until they touch. There are a few hard and small places where you have not followed this rule sternly enough." . . .
A few days later he called. Miss Heyneman's usual model had failed, and she had persuaded her charwoman to sit instead; Sargent offered to paint the head of the model.
This old head was perhaps easier to indicate with its prominent forms, but the painting was more subtle. I recall my astonishment when he went into the background with a most brilliant pure blue where I had seen only unrelieved darkness. "Don't you see it?" he asked, " the way the light quivers across it ?" I had not perceived it; just as, till each stroke emphasized his intention, I did not see how he managed to convey the thin hair stretched tightly back over the skull without actually painting it. He painted light or shadow, a four-cornered object with the corners worn smooth, as definite in form as it was idefinite in colour, and inexpressibly delicate in its transitions. He concentrated his whole attention upon the middle tone that carried the light into the shadow. He kept up a running commentary of explanation, as he went, appraising each stroke, often condemning it and saying: "That is how not to do it ! . . . Keep the planes free and simple," he would suggest, drawing a full large brush down the whole contour of a cheek, obliterating apparently all the modelling underneath, but it was always further to simplify that he took these really dreadful risks, smiling at my ill-concealed perturbation and quite sympathizing with it.
This second painting taught me that the whole value of a portrait depends upon its first painting, and that no tinkering can ever rectify an initial failure. Provided every stage is correct a painter of Mr. Sargent's calibre could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps but he never attempted to correct one. He held that it was as impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the under structure was wrong, as for a sculptor to remodel the features of a head that has not been understood in the mass. That is why Mr. Sargent often repainted the head a dozen times, he told me that he had done no less than sixteen of Mrs. Hammersley.
When he was dissatisfied he never hesitated to destroy what he had done. He spent three weeks, for instance, painting Lady D^bernon in a white dress. One morning, after a few minutes of what was to be the final setting, he suddenly set to work to scrape out what he had painted. The present portrait in a black dress, was done in three sittings.
He did the same with the portrait of Mrs. Wedgwood and many others. Miss Eliza Wedgwood relates that in 1896 he consented, at the instance of Alfred Parsons, to paint her mother for £250. She sat to him twelve times, but after the twelfth sitting he said they would both be the better for a rest. He then wrote to Miss Wedgwood that he was humiliated by his failure to catch the variable and fleeting charm of her mother's personality — that looked like the end of the portrait. Some weeks later he saw Mrs. Wedgwood at Broadway, and struck with a new aspect he said: "If you will come up next week we will finish that portrait." She came to Tite Street, a new canvas was produced, and in six sittings he completed the picture which was shown at the Memorial Exhibition.
Miss Heyneman continues:
"Paint a hundred studies," he would say, "keep any number of clean canvases ready, of all shapes and sizes so that you are never held back by the sudden need of one. You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh." He thought it was excellent practice to paint flowers, for the precision necessary in the study of their forms and the pure brilliancy of their colour. It refreshed the tone of one's indoor portraits, he insisted, to paint land- scape or figures out of doors, as well as to change one's medium now and then. He disliked pastel, it seemed to him too artificial, or else it was made to look like oil or water colour, and in that case why not use oil or water colour. . . .
Upon one occasion, after painting for me, he saw one hard edge, and drew a brush across it, very lightly saying at the same time " This is a disgraceful thing to do, and means slovenly painting. Don't ever let me see you do it. ..." I have also seen the assertion that he painted a head always in one sitting. He painted a head always in one process, but that could be carried over several sittings. He never attempted to repaint one eye or to raise or lower it, for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for the eye, and if it was wrongly placed, the under construction was wrong, and he ruthlessly scraped and repainted the head from the beginning. That is one reason why his brushwork looks so fluent and easy, he took more trouble to keep the unworried look of a fresh sketch than many a painter puts upon his whole canvas. The following extracts from Mr. Haley's account of Sargent's teaching at the Royal Academy Schools, 1 897-1900, throw- further light on his method:
The Significance of his teaching was not always immediately apparent; it had the virtue of revealing itself with riper experience. His hesitation was probably due to a searching out for something to grasp in the mind of the student, that achieved, he would unfold a deep earnestness, subdued but intense. He was regarded by some students as an indifferent teacher by others as a "wonder"; as a "wonder" I like to regard him.
He dealt always with the fundamentals. Many were fogged as to his aim. These fundamentals had to be constantly exercised and applied.
"When drawing from the model," he said, "never be without the plumb line in the left hand" — Every one has a bias, either to the right hand or the left of the vertical. The use of the plumb line rectifies this error and developes a keen appreciation of the vertical.
He then took up the charcoal, with arm extended to its full length, and head thrown well back; all the while intensely calculating, he slowly and deliberately mapped the proportions of the large masses of a head and shoulders, first the poise of the head upon the neck, its relation with the shoulders. Then rapidly indicate the mass of the hair, then spots locating the exact position of the features, at the same time noting their tone values and special character, finally adding any further accent or dark shadow which made up the head, the neck, the shoulders and head of the sternum.
After his departure I immediately plumbed those points before any movement took place of the model and found them very accurate.
A formula of his for drawing was " Get your spots in their right place and your lines precisely at their relative angles."
On one occasion in the evening life school I well remember Sargent complaining that no one seemed concerned about anything more than an approximate articulation of the head upon the neck and shoulders. The procedure was, to register carefully the whole pose at the first evening's sitting of two hours. The remainder of the sittings were devoted to making a thoroughly finished tone drawing in chalk, adhering to the original outline, working from the head downwards, thus the drawing was not affected by any chance deviation from the original pose by the model. Sargent could not reconcile himself to this, the method he tried to inculcate was to lay in the drawing afresh at every sitting getting in one combined effort a complete interpretation of the model. The skull to articulate properly upon the vertebras. The same with all the limbs, a keen structural easy supple, moveable machine, every figure with its own individual characteristic as like as possible, an accomplishment requiring enormous practice and experience with charcoal, but taken as a goal to aim at very desirable, a method he followed in his own painting. To the student it meant a continually altered drawing, to portray the varying moods of the model.
In reference to these drawings he would frequently say: " Draw the things seen with the keenest point and let the things unseen fuse themselves into the adjoining tones."
In connection with the painting, the same principles maintained, "Painting was an interpretation of tone. Through the medium of colour drawn with the brush." "Use yourself to a large brush." "Do not starve your palette." "Accurately place your masses with the charcoal." "Then lay in the back ground" about half an inch over the border of the adjoining tones, true as possible, then lay in the mass of hair, recovering the drawing and fusing the tones with the background, and overlapping the flesh of the forehead, then for the face lay in hold by a middle flesh tone, light on the left side and dark on the shadow side, always recovering the drawing and most carefully fusing the flesh into the background, painting flesh into background and background into flesh, until the exact quality is obtained, both in colour and tone the whole resembling a wig maker's block. Then follows the most marked and characteristic accents of the features in place and tone and drawing as accurate as possible, painting deliberately into wet ground, testing your work by repeatedly standing well back, viewing it as a whole, a very important thing. After this take up the subtler tones which express the retiring planes of the head, temples, chin, nose, and cheeks with neck, then the still more subtle drawing of mouth and eyes, fusing tone into tone all the time, till finally with deliberate touch the high lights are laid in, this occupies the first sitting and should the painting not be satisfactory the whole is ruthlessly fogged by brushing together, the object being not to allow any parts well done, to interfere with that principle of oneness, or unity of every part; the brushing together engendered an appetite to attack the problem afresh at every sitting each attempt resulting in a more complete visualization in the mind. The process is repeated until the canvas is completed.
Sargent would press home the fact, that the subtleties of paint must be controlled by continually viewing the work from a distance, " stand back — get well away — and you will realize the great danger there is of overstating a tone — keep the thing as a whole in your mind. Tones so subtle as not to be detected on close acquaintance can only be adjusted by this means."
When we were gathered in front of our display of sketches for composition awaiting some criticism Sargent would walk along the whole collection, rapidly looking at each one, and without singling out any in particular for comment, he would merely say "Get in your mind the sculptors view of things, arrange a composition, decoratively, easy, and accidental," this would be said in a hesitating manner and then he would quietly retire. On one occasion, when the subject set for a composition was a portrait the criticism was "not one of them seriously considered," many we had thought quite good, as an indication of what might be tried while a portrait was in progress. That would not do for Sargent. A sketch must be seriously planned, tried and tried again, turned about until it satisfies every requirement, and a perfect visualization attained. A sketch must not be merely a pattern of pleasant shapes, just pleasing to the eye, just merely a fancy. It must be a very possible thing, a definite arrangement — everything fitting in a plan and in true relationship frankly standing upon a horizontal plane coinciding in their place with a pre-arranged line. As a plan is to a building, so must the sketch be to the picture.
His general remarks were: "cultivate an ever continuous power of observation. Wherever you are, be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups and incidents. Store up in the mind without ceasing a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later. Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen, the power of selection will follow. Be continually making mental notes, make them again and again, test what you remember by sketches till you have got them fixed. Do not be backward at using every device and making every experiment that ingenuity can devise, in order to attain that sense of complete- ness which nature so beautifully provides, always bearing in mind the limitations of the materials in which you work."
It was not only students who acknowledged their debt to Sargent. Hubert Herkomer in his reminiscences writes: "I have learnt much from Sargent in the planning of lights and darks, the balance in tonality of background in its relation to the figure, the true emphasizing of essentials."
Sargent was well aware of the pitfalls that await the painter of the fashionable world, and as sitter after sitter took his place on the dais in his Tite Street studio he seemed to become more sensible of them. He tried again and again to escape, and he often, in his letters, expressed his fatigue. He wearied of the limitations imposed by his commissioned art. Painting those who want to be painted, instead of those whom the artist wants to paint, leads inevitably to a bargain, to a compromise between the artist's individuality and the claims of the model. Mannerism becomes a way out; that which pleases becomes an aim. Artistic problems give way before personal considerations; the decorative quality of a picture takes a secondary place. Sargent's sincerity, the driving need he had to express himself in his own way, his satiety with models imposed on him by fashion, culminated in revolt. He was forced, now and then, it is true, to return to his portraits, but his Boston work absorbed him more and more. The call of his studio in Fulham Road when he was in London, and of the Alps and the south of Europe in summer, came first. In 1 910 his exhibits at the Academy, instead of portraits, were Glacier Streams, Albanian Olive Gatherers, Vespers and A Garden at Corfu; at the New English Art Club, Flannels, On the Guidecca, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, A Florentine Nocturne, A Moraine and Olive Grove.
When in 1901 Mr. J. B. Manson, then a student, wrote to Sargent for advice he received the following reply:
31, Tite Street,
In reply to your questions I fear that I can only give you the most general advice. The only school in London of which I have any personal knowledge is the Royal Academy.
If the limit of age does not prevent your entering it I should advise you to do so.
There are also very good teachers at the Slade School.
You say you are studying painting to become a portrait painter. I think you would be making a great mistake if you kept that only in view during the time you intend to work in a life class — where the object of the student should be to acquire sufficient command over his material to do whatever nature presents to him. The conventionalities of portrait painting are only tolerable in one who is a good painter — if he is only a good portrait-painter he is nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch — but do not begin by learning what is required for a special branch, or you will become a mannerist.
John S. Sargent.
He was too conscientious to take refuge in a formula, but he had drawn too largely on his resources of selection and arrangement in relation to a single aspect of an artist's calling. He had not done violence to his sincerity, but it was time to turn to subjects in which there was more scope for design and composition, invention and variety. He now became immersed in decorative work and studies from nature.
MR. GEORGE MOORE observes in one of his essays that "the criticisms of a creative artist never amount to more than an ingenious defence of his own work." However true this may be, Sargent's sincerity gave peculiar authority to the criticisms which, at too rare intervals, he made upon other painters. For the most part he was evasive about his contemporaries. He was the least pontifical person imaginable, and fellow-feeling with craftsmen made him reluctant to give adverse criticism the stamp of his authority. He was little given to theory and took but a lukewarm interest in modern criticism. I do not know that he ever sought a formula for the excellences common to a Monet and a Peruvian vase, a Rubens and a Huang Ch'uan. But it would not have been inconsistent with his view to have defined the aim of art as essential expression, the endeavour, that is to say, to express by the most persuasive and revealing means the essential qualities of the object. Good art therefore would differ from bad art in so far as it succeeded in rendering the essential. His view would certainly, while allowing a wide latitude of selection and omission, not countenance that indifference to representation which is common to much recent art. We have seen with what admiration he regarded the work of Monet. He did not extend this in the same unqualified way to Monet's followers and successors. In 1910-11 an exhibition of Post-Impressionists and others was held at the Grafton Galleries. Through some misunderstanding Sargent had been mentioned by Mr. Roger Fry in an article in the Nation as a supporter of the Post-Impressionist school. On January 7, 191 1, he wrote the following letter to the editor:
To the Editor of the "Nation"
My attention has been called to an article by Mr. Roger Fry, called " A Postscript on Post-Impressionism " in your issue of December 24th in which he mentions me as being among the champions of the group of painters now being shown at the Grafton Gallery. I should be obliged if you would allow me space in your columns for these few words of rectification.
Mr. Fry has been entirely misinformed, and if I had been inclined to join in the controversy, he would have known that my sympathies were in the exactly opposite direction as far as the novelties are concerned, that have been most discussed and that this show has been my first opportunity of seeing. I had declined Mr. Fry's request to place my name on the initial list of promoters of the Exhibition on the ground of not knowing the work of the painters to whom the name of Post-Impressionists can be applied; it certainly does not apply to Manet or Cezanne. Mr. Fry may have been told — and have believed — that the sight of those paintings had made me a convert to his faith in them.
The fact is that I am absolutely sceptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art, with the exception of some of the pictures by Gauguin that strike me as admirable in color, and in color only.
But one wonders what will Mr. Fry not believe, and one is tempted to say what will he not print ? y
John S. Sargent.
When in 191 2 Mr. D. S. MacColl wrote an article in the Nineteenth Century, "A Year of Post-Impressionism," he received from Sargent the following letter:
My dear MacColl,
I have enjoyed reading your article on Post-Impressionism very much — I should think it would bring a good many people to their senses — I admire the certainty with which you have refrained from hinting at the possibility of bad faith on the part of people like Matisse or at the theory that I am inclined to believe that the sharp picture dealers invented and boomed this new article of commerce.
I think you have exactly weighed the merits of Cezanne and rather over-estimated the "realism" of Van Gogh whose things look to me like imitations made in coral or glass of objects in a vacuum. As to Gauguin, of course you had to deal with him for the sake of your argument, as if there were something in him besides rich and rare colour. Some day if we ever meet I should like to discuss with you the meaning of the word "values" and the word Impressionism.
John S. Sargent.
In order to appreciate the value of Sargent's concurrence with Mr. MacColl's estimate of Cezanne, the following extract from the article may be quoted:
Cezanne was not a great classic; he was an artist often clumsy, always in difficulties, very limited in his range, absurdly so in most numerous productions, but "with quite a little mood" and the haunting idea of an art built upon the early Monet, at which he could only hint. He oscillated between Moneys earlier and finer manner, that of dark contours and broadly divided colour, and a painting based on the early Monet, all colour in a high key. In this manner he produced certain landscapes tender and beautiful in colour, but the figure was too difficult for him, and from difficulties he escaped into the still lifes I have spoken of, flattened jugs, apples, and napkins like blue tin that would clank if they fell. What is fatal to the claim set up for him as a deliberate designer, creating eternal images out of the momentary lights of the Impressionists, is the fact that his technique, remains that of the Impressionists, a sketcher's technique, adapted for snatching hurriedly at effects that will not wait.
It is clear that Sargent was from the first definitely hostile to the more advanced Post-Impressionists; he receded very little, if at all, from that position. He regarded the Cubists, their followers and offshoots with uncompromising dis- approval. He did not consider that either they or even the great majority of Post-Impressionists, by slighting representation, were contributing in any way whatsoever, as was claimed for them by a leading critic, "to establishing more and more firmly the fundamental laws of expressive form in its barest and most abstract elements." He held that it could be more effectually and much more emotionally attained by representing also the visual and spiritual values of the thing seen. But like Monet, he was no respecter of theories. He did not pause to discuss why he painted as he did, he worked in the idiom of an inherited tradition, refreshing it with vitality and vigour, enriching it with a modernized technique, and pushing it to what many may consider its utmost limits. All around him the pictorial and plastic arts were developing on lines divergent from his own, while criticism was being forced to find formulae and theories to fit the new movement. In an epoch of rapid change he pursued his way undeflected. Charles Furse regarded him as one of the five great Masters of portrait painting of the world. When he died in 1924 Mr. Roger Fry concluded his review of Sargent's work by saying: "I am sure that he was no less distinguished and genuine as a man than, in my opinion, he was striking and undistinguished as an illustrator and non- existent as an artist."* These two opinions mark the limits of possible divergence on the value of Sargent's art. No doubt his fame will be subject to many oscillations in future, but it is, at any rate, inconceivable that posterity should agree with Mr. Fry.
Sir Charles Holmes in his well-known work "Notes on the Art of Rembrandt," while drawing a comparison between Rembrandt and Hals, has dealt with the method and the characteristics of the painter of the Laughing Cavalier. Sargent's kinship with Hals is at once apparent. It is true that as Hals progressed he simplified his palette and reduced the range of his colour, whereas Sargent tended in the opposite direction as his facility increased; but in their approach, in their outlook, in the broad features of their technique, and in their respective limitations the resemblance is unmistakable. Sir Charles Holmes calls attention to Hals' "conscious fidelity of statement," within which the painter "finds room for the exercise of those faculties of selection and arrangement that mark the artist as opposed to the hack painter"; his sense of design, adequate rather than exceptional; his "supreme faculty of representation in oil paint," the mapping out of the masses and planes, the swift touches of light and shadow at the emphatic points; the manner in which "everywhere the strokes of the brush take just the course
* See also Roger Fry, "Transformations," p. 135.
EARL OF WEMYSS.
that is needed to express the infinite varieties of surfaces and substances of which the piece is built up." Such among other characteristics establish a definite similarity between the two masters. We have already seen that Sargent extolled the technical methods of Hals, and looked on him as the portrait painter with whom he had most in common. Here it will be of interest to recall some of his estimates of other artists.
At the time of the Ingres Exhibition in Paris (19 14) Sargent said to M. Helleu: "Ingres, Raphael and El Greco, these are now my admirations, these are what I like." Greco was no new admiration. He was an artist of whom Sargent had an exhaustive knowledge, and regarded with increasing appreciation. Some years before his talk with Helleu he had written to de Glehn from Aranjuez:
Almost immediately on getting to Spain I fell in with Auguste Breal and his wife, and we joined forces as we had a lot of letters for Toledo and Madrid for the purpose of seeing unknown Grecos. It was interesting, but after all the best Grecos are in the churches that are known, and in the Prado — there are some new ones there — he is certainly one of the very most magnificent old masters.
In 191 5 a pamphlet was published by a specialist* in Madrid to prove that the peculiarities of Greco's drawing were due to advanced astigmatism. The pamphlet was sent to Sargent by the Duke of Alba, whereupon he wrote as follows:
31, Tite Street,
My dear Duke of Alba, Aug. 19th, 1915.
Many thanks for sending the pamphlet on El Greco's astigmatism — it has interested me very much although I am not absolutely convinced. Being very astigmatic myself I am very familiar with the phenomena that result from that peculiarity of eyesight, and it seems to me very unlikely that an artist should be influenced by them in the matter of form and not at all in the matter of colour where they are much more noticeable.
The colouring of Claude Monet is an absolutely genuine document perhaps the only genuine one, of the optical phenomena of astigma
* "El Astigmatismo del Greco"; G. Beritens, " Especialista en las Enferme- dadas de los Ojos." tism. The conscious study of these phenomena is called "Impression- ism" (but many so-called "Impressionists" are mere imitators of his style of execution and perhaps have perfectly normal eyes, and therefore have no right to the name). If a man painted conscientiously what he saw through a bad opera glass he would note down some of the peculiarities of astigmatic vision, the decomposing into prismatic colours, and the perturbation when a bright tone comes near a dark one.
The Greco shows no trace whatever of these influences. More- over the Greco's earlier pictures were full of rich and brilliant colour, and his later ones are almost black and white. The contrary change is what one might expect in a case of astigmatism, for this condition, which breaks up colour into its prismatic elements, increases with age.
As for the elongation of his figures, it may be partly due to astigma - tism, but the Renaissance affords so many examples of this exaggeration of elegance that it may also be accounted for as a mannerism of the time derived from the imitators of Michael Angelo. Tintoretto, the Greco's master, had a tendency that way — and Primaticcio, Parmigianino, Jean Goujon, and other contemporaries elongated, their figures as much as he did, for the sake of elegance and not because of astigmatism. Even the most fervent admirer of El Greco cannot deny that he had some very obvious affectations, for instance the extra- ordinary airs and graces of his hands. Why should St. Francis in ecstasy and the Magdalen in the desert be making "des effets de mains" if the Greco did not wish to be elegant quand meme ?
I find that I have inflicted an interminable letter on you — if you get through it, it will be thanks to your being I dare say without many distractions in your present abode. I hope you are well and that you will be coming to London one of these days.
John S. Sargent.
The view that astigmatism decomposes into prismatic colours is novel and would scarcely find scientific support. But coming from Sargent, himself, as we know, astigmatic, it has a peculiar interest, being based on his own experience and the close observation of phenomena to which he paid much attention.
On July 1 6, 1923, he delivered a short address at the Royal Academy in celebration of the bicentenary birth of Sir Joshua Reynolds. This involved the two things he most dreaded, publicity and a speech. At first he said nothing would induce him to read the address himself, but he finally consented. The meeting was held in the evening in the main gallery of the Academy. When Sargent rose in his place there was a tense silence, a nervous curiosity. His record as a public speaker was known to a sympathetic audience. It was evident that he was deeply agitated, the page from which he was to read fluttered in his hands like a leaf in a breeze. His opening sentences were scarcely audible, spoken in a low conversational tone with his eyes bent low on his manuscript. As he progressed, however, his voice gained a little in strength, though still broken by nervousness. It was an ordeal both for speaker and audience. When he finished there was a burst of vehement applause which showed the affection and esteem in which he was held.
SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS
The great Master whose bicentenary we celebrate to-day in this Institution that he founded and of which he is the greatest glory, is an instance of that law by which the period of an artist is always manifest, whether his work conforms to older standards or points to future ones. In painting Sir Joshua Reynolds follows the highest traditions of the past — it is in portraiture, and by a new tendency of portraiture that he shows as a man of his own time.
Vandyck and Franz Hals had already shown the direction of this tendency, which involved a gradual departure from the extreme gravity of characterization of the earlier Masters — The conscious dignity and inviolable reserve that mark the personages of Titian and Velasquez, had given way by degrees to a more intimate and less formal bearing. Sir Joshua's subjects and those of his contemporaries seem, without loss of dignity, to have a more human way with them, just as Rembrandt's allow one a deeper communion with their mystery. The quiet eyes of the elder portraits hold one at a distance and seem to transpose the relation of the observer and the observed.
By a slow change of fashion or of taste this barrier of severance fell away, and there entered into the art of portraiture a new quality of curiosity and analysis. Sir Joshua came long before the last stages of this evolution, and his people, through all the boldness and frank- ness of his vision, still hold their own and keep the distance that great portraiture always maintains.
Technically, it is well known, his methods and processes were those of the great Venetians. His discourses show him to have been extra- ordinarily eclectic, and alive to the aims and qualities of the other Italian Schools; but in his work he was always a Venetian, practising an indirect method that involved various preparatory stages and that is practically no longer in use to-day.
A change has come with the influence of landscape and with the study of out-of-door effects — These have revealed an unlimited range of new relations of the figure to its surroundings. Instead of the figure being, as of old, almost always made the principal centre of light, it is now-a-days given the most varying place in the scale, and the methods of painting have changed with the need of a swifter notation of passing effects and novel relations.
Perhaps, for the painter, Sir Joshua's method of lighting is one of his chief originalities. He invented what, with him and with his followers, became a formula — that peculiar play of vivid light on a face that abolishes half-tones and gives an extraordinary emphasis of accent to the features and the few small shadows. It is known that his studio, had a very small window that lit his sitter like a bull's-eye lantern, giving an effect of simplification that Sir Joshua was certainly the first to make his own. Needless to say, although this method at once became common property, his own examples of the use of it have never been surpassed.
It must be left to individual taste to choose which most to admire, the simpler portraits like, among many others, the portentous head of Dr. Johnson, so grand in character and suggestion, or those more fanciful compositions in which Sir Joshua invested a portrait with all the charm of a decorative picture. His resources in this line were unbounded, and the setting, however romantic, in which he sometimes placed his people never detracted from their interest as men and women.
Perhaps there are no greater examples of this mastery than the two portraits that are the Royal Academy's proudest possessions, pictures of dim splendour, where, over all the apparatus and pomp and insignia of Royalty, two calm faces hold us enthralled.
It is well to do homage to their author in the presence of these noble works.
Another criticism of Sir Joshua is contained in a letter which he wrote after I had asked him to look at a portrait of that Master at a dealers shop. "I didn't like the Reynolds," he wrote. "It is too early to have any of his richness and too late for his good old early hardness. Miss Montgomery ogles you under lowered brows and displays vague hands and you are not amused." He was very much given to dividing the work of individual painters into periods, sometimes rather arbitrarily it seemed, and showing a strong preference for one period over another. As it was with Reynolds, so with Turner, whose early work as illustrated by the Wreck of an Orange Ship he admired almost to the exclusion of his later and visionary ecstasies of coloured mists and shimmering vapour. In the same way he drew a sharp distinction between the early and late painting of Monet, considering that he never surpassed, if he ever equalled, the Olympiad
Equally in the case of Rodin he drew a sharp line. In 1902 he wrote to Mr. MacColl:
Use my name by all means on the list — I would be delighted to further the scheme of having a good example of Rodin in a London gallery. ... In case I don't turn up let me say that Rodin's early work, either the "Age d'arain" or the St. John seems to me far finer than most of his later things and I hope that it might be one of those that would be tried for — and I would gladly subscribe.
In later years his interest in pictures seemed to centre rather in their craftsmanship than their significance; he was more taken up with the means employed than the end achieved. Composition assumed an increasingly important place in his artistic outlook. "I find as I grow old — probably a sign of senile decay" — he said to Mr. William James, "that I care less and less about the painting of things 'just the way they look,' and get more interested in — well, something more in the nature of a Wedgwood plaque." This was a notable avowal from one whose whole talent had been devoted to the painting of things "in the way they looked." It was probably the cry of the artist sated with portraiture, and absorbed by the exercise of his imagination in the field of decoration. His views often seemed "queer" or "curious" (to use two of his favourite words) to those who heard them; as when he complained that Constable was too fond of putting fine and stormy weather on the same canvas; or when he criticized Albert Durer as a draughtsman; or expressed surprise that William Blake with such originality in his ideas should have chosen an idiom so conventional by which to express them. Equally his indifference to the Dutch school of landscape painters was always surprisingly comprehensive, and not a little disconcerting.
* See ante, p. 102.
In his introductory notes for exhibitions of the works of Brabazon and Zuloaga* he shows the real enlightenment of his critical powers.
The preface to a catalogue of the works of Robert Brough is an appreciation of a younger artist who was also Sargent's friend. Brough was fatally injured in a railway accident on January 19, 1905. A telegram had brought the news late on the night of the nineteenth. The next morning some friends of Brough went to Tite Street to consult with Sargent as to what could be done for the injured man; they found that Sargent had taken the six o'clock morning train for Sheffield. He arrived at the hospital in time to see his friend before he died.
3, Tite Street,
If any aid were needed for the comprehension of work whose charm is so irresistible as that of the late and much regretted Robert Brough, visitors to the present Exhibition might seek it in comparing his style with that of Charles Furse whose works were shown in the same rooms a year ago. Excepting in the sad similarity of their early and tragic deaths, the contrast between these two artistic talents is absolute and enhances their respective claims to our admiration.
Furse's rugged strength and emphasis set off the grace, the fluidity the lightness of touch that are so delightful in Brough; that very rare quality of surface that seems to make the actual paint a precious substance is also brought out by contrast with the handling of a painter who seemed too impetuous in the expression of his intentions to care to be exquisite in his method. Whereas the one struck ample themes and sounded passionate music, the other was blessed with the gift of what corresponds to a pure and melodious voice. The developing of this natural gift into a perfectly supple and practised medium seems to be the direction in which his progress can best be traced when one follows it through the interesting series of portraits that are now gathered together in tribute to his memory.
In the summer of 191 1, at Munich, on his way to the Tyrol, he received a letter from Mrs. Abbey on June 28, begging him
* See Appendix.
to return at once as her husband lay dying and was in anxiety about the completion of his large canvases. He arrived at Tite Street on June 30 in time to supervise the work. To Lady Lewis he wrote:
I am all day long busy from morning till night every day at the White City — horrid fate in this heat — I am looking after some work there of another man's who is ill and to whose rescue I had to come.
Before he left he was able to see Edwin Abbey and assure him that the alterations had been successfully completed. When Abbey's work, in the year after his death, was severely criticized by Robert Ross in the Morning Post, Sargent at once intervened on behalf of his friend:
My dear Ross,
I am very glad to see that you are answering protests on your article about Abbey, because it may give you the opportunity of removing the impression that you have chosen this moment to make a one sided attack. Surely in reviewing his life's work at this final exhibition you must recognize his particular quality of dramatic
insight and invention, his endless variety of characterization, his humour, his pathos and his occasional grimness. You have hurt a good many feelings by an apparent want of feeling at a time when hats are taken off. It would be handsome of you as you are still writing on the subject to appease his ghost by a mention of his good qualities as well as those that you dislike. Do you see no imagination and beauty in those two decorative designs of the Puritan Ships and the Miners Going Down into the Earth?