Friday, January 23, 2009

John Singer Sargent, the Later Portraits!

Our book today is John Singer Sargent , The Later Portraits, the third volume in Yale University Press’ ongoing series of the artist’s complete paintings. It was written by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, with the indefatigable assistance of a cadre of incredibly hard-working research assistants, and its main focus is the early part of the 20th century, 1909-1925, when Sargent was moving away from the high society portraits that had made his fortune and reputation. He made this move, he said, for two reasons: first, he was starting to feel he’d exhausted the potential of the genre, and second, he thought his talents in that genre were diminishing as time went by.

It should be admitted promptly that he was right on both counts. For the genre of society portraiture in general, no better metaphor could be found than the inventory of studio props catalogued at the beginning of this volume: a handful of decorative chairs, a couple of tapestries, some evocative tabletop odds and ends, some marble plinths … the list and photos barely fill two pages. There’s only so many ways even the most clever artist can arrange and re-arrange these things – and likewise there are only so many things you can do with a formal portrait before you’ve done them all and start doing them all again, and then again and again. Even for an unimaginative sort (and Sargent, no matter how it might make his detractors howl, was deeply, almost argumentatively unimaginative), it must perforce grow wearying.

And the second point is also true: Sargent wasn’t doing his best work in the genre anymore. Doing society paintings well requires one quality above all others – conviction. And you can really only have conviction when you’re an eager outsider, trying to paint your way in. Once you become a member of society on your own, once you’re as well known – or better known – as half your sitters, the fact that they are your sitters fails to excite fascination or envy. And if you’re not feeling those things, you don’t have much chance of making others feel those things, which is the whole point of society portraiture (although members of society – then or now – would likewise howl that this isn’t why they do it at all).

So this is an odd volume, gorgeously reproducing piece after piece of what the artist himself often referred to as not his best work. If you turn the pages quickly, allowing only flash upon flash of images, you quickly start to feel a certain angry tenor of boredom: who are all these well-dressed, arrogant-looking useless social ornaments? Who, in the 1920s, would be hidebound and condescending enough to commission a full-length oil painting of themselves, when photography was even then enjoying its first golden age? If you turn the pages quickly, all you see is one self-satisfied smirk after another, one bored, contemptuous face after another looking back at you, secure in a way nobody is secure anymore, secure in a way you suspect nobody was then either, which only adds to the anger, since it makes this parade not only patronizing but self-consciously fake.

It’s natural to feel this irritation. These are mostly British portraits – with a handful of Americans thrown in – and if you turn the pages quickly, easy retorts begin springing to mind: that the world these people knew is gone, that the Second World War and the hundred tawdry progresses of the 20th century swept it away, that it was top-heavy and etiolated with decadence and unearned privilege even while Sargent was taking its likeness. Etc. Swells, the mind retorts. Conceited, arrogant, useless old grandees.

But if you slow down and actually look at the pictures, outrage quiets down and an involuntary interest starts percolating – that’s Sargent’s genius, even in decline. Yes, he consciously emulates Gainsborough and Reynolds by gilding a world, wrapping it in splendor. But then he takes a tiny half-step ahead of his illustrious predecessors by limning everything in just the faintest suggestion of melancholy – not just the glorious sunset of a world, but the softest presentiments of twilight as well. It’s an uncanny trick, and when he does it right, the personalities of his sitters stand out so clearly in the gathering dusk that the modern-day viewer stops feeling aggravated by all the surface toadying going on and starts almost involuntarily asking, “Who were these people?”

Once you ask that, Sargent’s got you. With lots of other portrait painters, you ask that question dutifully, because you want to know who’s at the center of all this fuss. But with Sargent, you ask it because you’ve paused just long enough to see individuals looking back at you from the canvas. At the height of his power and fame, Sargent was often characterized as a cruel painter, somebody who would very consciously lay open his subjects’ innermost flaws and contradictions. But he was always more than that – he was always more Holbein than Durer. He decks many of his subjects in anachronistic dress and ornament, has them recline in manners more fitting to Van Dyck than the Edwardian era, and in doing that he seems to idealize everything in view – which makes the telling idiosyncrasies, when they invariably appear, all the more startling (Sargent was fond of defining a portrait as “a picture of somebody in which something is not quite right with the mouth”). But the gesture that stops these idiosyncrasies from being cruel is that they, too, are gently idealized. “I’d rather look like a Sargent,” one London matron remarked, “than Helen of bloody Troy.”

That matron’s sentiments would have been enthusiastically echoed by Lady Margaret Spicer, the daughter of the twelfth Earl of Westmoreland, whom Sargent painted early in the period covered by this volume. It’s a fine work, done in a vaguely neo-Classical setting and costume, and it’s filled with subtleties that defeat the casual glance – you have to look at it to see it. Lady Margaret‘s stance is a perfect mixture of rigid and casual, and the effect Sargent works into the creamy folds of her drapery (and the gently shimmering color of her olive shoulder sash) is so simple and yet so suggestive that it could only have been done by a bored master. Likewise Lady Margaret’s face, in which the hint of her natural good humor peaks out from a very purposefully blasé façade (and notice Sargent faithfully captures the uneven glance of her eyes – idiosyncratic, but not cruel).

Or what about revered and beloved Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, whose colleagues took up a collection to pay Sargent for his portrait? William James lent his studio on the Riverway, and porters brought over the “President’s Chair” for Lowell to occupy, and Sargent fretfully suggested his subject wear his “official gown” … and the end result is wonderful, so much more than any of those various ingredients. The slightly exaggerated shadows on the right side of Lowell’s face serve to highlight the brightness of his puckish character – the man looks ready to speak, and the attentive viewer can already intuit something playful and perceptive in what will be said. The light Sargent has captured in Lowell’s eyes is something only portraiture can do – in a photograph, it would only be a reflection.

Despite being comparatively late in his portrait-painting career, these pictures can still be deeply conventional. Sargent’s tastes were moving toward the more impressionistic (his final painting of Isabella Steward Gardner is virtually a séance of bright white drapery), but he still knew exactly what high society expected of a ‘vintage Sargent,’ and this book is full of brightly-rendered ladies of all ages, usually sitting or standing in elegant, affected disregard. These are gorgeous pictures, but even a glance shows them also to be lucrative commissions, and there’s an unavoidable sameness about many of them. But the exceptions show how much was going on under the surface – and this book has many exceptions, like the glowing, winsome portrait of young Lili Coats with the bright red sash around her negligible waist. She looks every bit the ingénue (one critic caustically remarked on the new stage on Sargent’s career, as a “painter of debutantes”), but still the painter managed to work into the posture, the face, some hint of the woman she would become. Twenty years after this portrait was painted, she became a very formidable Duchess of Wellington – and you can see a hint of it here.

And there’s the magnificent portrait of the tenth Earl of Wemyss and March, still a lively, forceful personality even when this picture was made, when Lord Wemyss had to be in his late eighties. As he often does in these late portraits, Sargent chooses heavy, dark draperies for his subject, the better to illuminate their remarkable faces in what more than one critic likened to a burst of sunlight. Sargent in this period is growing more and more fascinated with the uses and manipulations of light – and he grew fussy about it, usually refusing to paint sitters anywhere but in his own carefully-arranged studio.

He made an exception for the bewitching Duchess of Portland, packing up his show and taking it to one of her estates, where he stayed for a month in 1902, doing innumerable pencil sketches and even going so far as to destroy a nearly-finished canvas, declaring it had no life in it (although some of this can be chalked up to a wayward strain of perfectionism that sometimes reared up in Sargent, there was also exceptional food to be had at the Duchess’ estate …). The end result certainly brims with life; the Duchess looks every bit as beautiful and slightly hunted as she did in the flesh, and here once again Sargent has managed to get the maximum effect out of a minimum of ornament, the stark whites and reds coming together in the mildly flushed tones of the Duchess’ face.

This period produced some of Sargent’s best-known portraits: Lord Ribblesdale in full hunting regalia (and full lordly disdain), Henry James doing his best to look sultry, Theodore Roosevelt doing his best to look statesmanlike, a fetching Nancy Astor doing her best not to look like the bought-and-paid-for bargaining chip she was; the smile-inducing group portrait of the fourth Earl of Gosford’s three daughters, etc. But there’s impatience lurking in even the best of these pictures. Sargent had lost whatever passion for this kind of work he once felt, and he was worried the lack was beginning to show. The next Yale volume features work that is starting to look very different indeed, and that, too, adds a tint of melancholy to this volume. The decades covered in this book represent that last flourishing of formal portrait-painting done while it was still a more-or-less acceptable indulgence. It’s still done, by the wealthy – but now, unlike then, they’re only laughed at for the vanity of it. So Sargent really was capturing a vanishing world – theirs, and his own as well.


brian said...

Isn't it time for your oscar predictions? Usually, you make those before the nominations even come out.

Sam said...

I think you should completely ignore the nominations that have come out. Brad Pitt? Seriously?

And Brian, tell me, how is your Catholic Church/pedophilia/holocaust screenplay coming? I sense Oscar sweep!

steve said...

Oscar picks are forthcoming, but first I thought I'd natter on about books nobody cares about for a while longer!

Nancy Moser said...

Thanks for your comments about this book, Steve. I was thinking of purchasing it, but was unsure (I have Volumes I and II and am actually writing a novel based on one of his paintings.) But when you described how you began to see the paintings in a fuller light, as people looking back at you, each with a story to tell...that's how I feel with Sargent's paintings. I am transported to another time and place, another moment. Isn't that what art is supposed to do for the viewer? I'm buying the book and look forward to immersing myself into every painting.

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