John Singer Sargent was one of the most brilliant talents this country has produced. Yet no other American painter's reputation sank as low as his, once the period he represented ended.
Internationally famous during the Victorian era, friend and portraitist of the rich and powerful, he had a reputation that plummeted after his death to the point where he was cited in the 1930s and 1940s as the prime example of the artistic superficiality Sloan, Henri, Bellows, and others had to fight against in the early years of this century.
That he was neither the great genius his contemporaries thought, nor the empty trickster his more recent detractors have claimed, is beautifully demonstrated in "John Singer Sargent: His Own Work," on view here through June 27 at the Coe Kerr Gallery.
Drawn from various museums, and from the collections of descendants of friends and relatives of Sargent, this exhibition of roughly 60 oils and watercolors consists of the more private and informal works Sargent created for himself and for his friends.
One's first impression of this show is visual bedazzlement. The paintings, especially the watercolors, are light-drenched. Light, in fact, is the real subject matter of these swiftly executed studies of people, buildings, foliage, animals, Venetian canals, flowers, etc. It splashes and prances over everything it touches, and leaves one with the impression that Sargent, during his relaxed moments, looked most intensely for subjects against which light could most effectively be portrayed.
Sargent obviously approached his subjects with a great sense of life, but also, I'm afraid, with something of a snapshot mentality. He looked and painted with intensity, verve, and passion, but with little desire to create anything but direct transcriptions of what he saw. He saw brilliantly but superficially, and composed by framing what was in front of him and letting his facility and his intuitions alert him to when it was time to stop.
The results are as brilliant as lightning flashes. One is struck dumb by his virtuosity, by the vitality and visual effervescence he managed to capture on such small pieces of paper. But once that initial effect is over, one can't help but wonder how real it all is as art.
That, of course, is the question which lies at the heart of any attempt to re-evaluate Sargent's work. To the early American modernists of this century hard at work establishing a more solid, post-Cezanne geometric basis for their art, Sargent's brilliant facility seemed like the last word in pictorial emptiness. And this attitude continued right through the post-World War II period. In the face of the vast formal and conceptual realities confronting painting in this century, Sargent's excursions into pure visual effect seemed trivial indeed.
And yet, despite everything, his best works remain tremendously alive and interesting. His "Madame X," in the Metropolitan Museum, a portrait of an elegant, full-length Victorian lady, has almost become the archetypical portrait of that age. And, in this exhibition, such oil studies as "Rehearsal of the Pas de Loup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver," "Le Piano Noir," and "Girl With Sickle ," reveal a tremendous ability for transforming what he saw into paint. There is simply no denying it, Sargent had a truly magnificent talent and sensibility -- and it was already full-blown at 18 as several works in this show testify.
Sargent was probably our outstanding watercolor virtuoso. His flair for the medium was unmatched. And yet, when his watercolors are seen next to those of his contemporaries Winslow Homer and Maurice Prendergast, they appear somewhat shrill and flashy for our taste.
We prefer things a bit more formal, more regulated. Cezanne served as such an extraordinary corrective to the excesses of 19th-century academic artifact and Victorian sensibility that we, as his artistic decendants, have an extremely hard time with art that makes no concessions to geometry or to ritual.
I returned twice to this exhibition to test my responses to Sargent's art and found myself more and more enchanted with the dozen or so pieces I particularly liked.
Enchanted, but also a bit disturbed. My 20th-century sensibilities demanded some indication that Sargent understood that art is more than brilliantly recorded visual sensation.And that compositional placement demands more than a physically correct transcription of the accidental.
And yet I kept asking myself if I wasn't being unfair, if I wasn't superimposing 20th-century values on a 19th-century point of view.
The answer to that, it seems to me, is that we are still too close to Sargent and to the historical period he represents to be truly objective about his accomplishments. We are still in rebellion against many of the values he represented.
On the one hand, his best pieces hold up regardless of any 20th-century critical attitudes and prejudices one may bring to them. They quite simply sparkle with life and hold their own.
But, on the other hand, they are easily forgotten when no longer in view. One leaves these paintings with a feeling of blinding visual brilliance, with a sense of bright sunlight against various objects. And mostly, of masterful painterly performance. It's all really extraordinary.
But while that may have been enough for his time and place, it really isn't enough for us.