John Singer Sargent

A remarkable painter!  He was the favorite of Edwardian society, but at the height of his success as a portraitist in the “grand manner,” he gave it up.  A very private man, sophisticated, yet also naive, dedicated to his art, his friends, and his family, but little else.  So what?

He knew what he was.  He moved in those circles, but he was not quite of them.  Who knows what he really thought?  He certainly was never ironic or satirical in his depiction of the rich and great.  He never shared their anti-semitism either, doing  some of his best work in portraits of the Anglo-Jewish financial and merchant kings, much to the chagrin of the Establishment.

With the advent of Modernism, and the self-conscious avant garde, his reputation went into eclipse, to be resuscitated later.  Sample this from the great puritan – I do love him, though – Lewis Mumford (from wiki):

“Sargent remained to the end an illustrator…the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent’s mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution.”

Appearance of workmanship..? Alas, Lewis, I couldn’t disagree with you more.


20 Responses to John Singer Sargent

  1. Cheri says:

    Mumford’s critique of Sargent’s paintings reminds me of today’s edgy and mean book reviews.

    His paintings are luscious.

  2. I admire Sargent too. Have you read Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis? She (Madame X–Virginie Amelie Gautreau) is the one in the black dress, as you noted.

  3. lichanos says:

    Haven’t read the book, but there’s a related website that has this photo of Madame X as she first appeared: That Strap!

  4. suburbanlife says:

    When I saw the Sargent exhibition in Seattle @ ten years ago, I was taken aback by the portrait of Asher Wertheimer in company with his dog. There was a glimmer of critique that I picked up from that painting, that suggested to me a certain cunning Sargent may have as a painter. Superficially, it is a depiction of a self-satisfied, successful businessman. But let the symbols shown alongside him have their way with you and your mind. As with all art, the intention of the painter is not always an overt and deliberate one; and, of course, a viewer brings personal baggage to the viewing which influences the impact of a work and the reading of it. I was absolutely gob-smacked by the thoughts that occurred to me on looking at this particular painting. It is a mistake to dismiss a painter’s oeuvre due to it’s success in seducing clients and making a handsome living for the artist. There is often more/less than is available at first sight. G

  5. lichanos says:


    He is certainly no mere flatterer, which is how some people have characterized him in the past, I think…

  6. troutsky says:

    Craftmanship is often disparaged by critics. Artists do have a responsibility to be edgy however.

    • lichanos says:

      The disparagement of craft by critics is definitely a new phenomenon in culture, and didn’t appear until the 19th century, if not later. Duchamp is one of the first great avatars of that movement. Funny that Troutsky brings this up, since the disparagement of craft has most often been done by avante garde, often left-wing critics. Craft, has often been associated, in the culture wars, with the reactionary bourgeois establishment, drooling over work by A. Bouguereau and others. Thus, we have Tom Wolfe, who goes to the other extreme and assumes that anyone who is skilled with a brush or chisel must be a great artist.

      I don’t agree that artists have a “responsibility to be edgy.” I think they have a responsibility to try to make good art, whatever they think that is.

    • Lars says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. there is no responsibilty to be “edgy”. Art takes so many forms and no one artist will be universally loved or accepted. If there is any responsibility at all, and I’m not sure there is, it is for the artist to be true tio him/herself and do the absolute best work they can in whatever medium or style they choose.

  7. Ducky's here says:

    Calling the painter of the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit a mere flatterer would certainly be unjust.
    A tool of his bourgeois patrons, to be sure.

    I think the disparagement of “craft” comes as a reaction to those who assume a work has to appear to be difficult to create in order to be “good”. They can’t escape their Calvinist aesthetic code.

  8. lichanos says:

    A tool of his bourgeois patrons, to be sure.

    I disagree. He knew just what he was doing in his career, is the impression I get. Nobody’s tool or fool.

    Thanks for the tip to the painting of the Daughters Boit. I was not aware of it. Rather a subdued picture of young girls – a little weird even.

    …reaction to those who assume a work has to appear to be difficult to create in order to be “good”. They can’t escape their Calvinist…

    The idea that a work must be “difficult” to be worthwhile is certainly not new, and definitely pre-dates Calvin! I recall that notion from my college classes in medieval literature. Anything less was simply “vulgar” entertainment, worth using to pass the time, but not “art.”

    I think the reaction was more against people like Bouguereau, whom a teacher of mine called a “great painter and a lousy artist.”

    • Anwar says:

      I bet your teacher who claimed Bouguereau was a great painter and a lousy Artist co
      nsiders himself a great Artiste and a lousy painter.

  9. Ducky's here says:

    Well, often Sargent did exactly what Isabella Gardner and Bernard Berenson wanted him to do. He painted her with an apparent halo for a reason. I’m not always taken by his Boston Brahmin subject matter but they have character and he could paint.

    I’ve certainly spent my time with “El Jaleo” which sure has an abundance of life.

    Great painter, lousy artist. Yeah, you can probably say that of most of the Rococo hedonists. Fragonard is another one.

  10. zeusiswatching says:

    Critics have their uses. I recently read Taine’s “Ideal in Art” and found it a worthy, if flawed framework and I have recently acquired more of his books on art which I look forward to reading.

    Still, critics establish frameworks, often with agendas, and disparaging works that don’t fit nicely into the frameworks had ought discredit the critic rather than the artist or the artwork. One need only remember the invective hurled at the impressionists.

    • lichanos says:

      One need only remember the invective hurled at the impressionists.

      Of course, the name, Impressionists, came from an insulting phrase about that group’s work written by some critic.

      I have to say, impressionism is not my cup of tea. Because I’m colorblind? Yes, I know…don’t even start!

  11. anartguy says:

    An artist has many responsibilities, sincerity is one of top on the list.
    I believe Sargent hid behind his craft.He seldom went beyond technique.
    On the grand scope of things, his style remained academic and his response was subtle in change.An evolution of an artist doesn’t have to change drastically , but does question one’s sincerity to art.

    I think someone of his stature could have pushed himself more in a more cerebral manner and not just in displaying one’s perfect dive into an ocean of predictability.

    There is no question Sargent was the best portrait artist of his time , when concerning yourself solely on technique-he’s amazing,truly.
    But a great Artist should be more daring and not rest on his laurels.
    He is an inspiration to me as an illustrator but as an artist I think he sold out big time.

    • lichanos says:

      I guess as an artist, you feel a bit impatient with JSS. Being simply a member of the audience, I have the luxury of not feeling that irritation. I enjoy him for doing what he did better than anyone, and being daring in his craft.

      You say you wish he’d been a bit “more cerebral,” but to me, if anything, it seems he was that in abundance. That is, you could say he lacked a full-blooded passion for his work. But I don’t care, and I don’t think much of the argument that artists must be “sincere.” More than the rest of us – why?

  12. tony sexton says:

    I love his work, it’s so sensual and somehow uplifting as well.

  13. tony sexton says:

    I travelled to London once from the Middle East, specifically to see the exhibition of his work at the National Gallery, that’s how much I like him!
    The arguments above are fascinating to read and I see the point that some critics make about him; when you compare him to someone like Degas, you can’t help but agree that he loses by comparison. Yet his work satisfies on what seems to be another level altogether – whether ‘worse’ or ‘better’,seems irrelevant. On his own terms he succeeds magnificently. Perhaps he reigns in the kingdom of Visual Pleasure…

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    The violence showed of these cartoons was more offensive than regular adult movies.
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  15. G. Cummings says:

    Lewis Mumford was nothing more than a jealous ass! Nitwits like him have always put down those of rare talent out of simple snobbery to elevate themselves. John Singer Sargent is one of the greatest American Painters to ever have lived. His work is still undeniably fantastic in its execution and style.

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