A major retrospective helps in evaluating his possible greatness

IT'S a pleasure to report that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is once again receiving the attention and respect he deserves. Art historians are taking him more seriously than they have in decades; museums are spotlighting his paintings rather than relegating them to obscure corners; and curators of American art no longer cringe when his name is mentioned. Most important, his current retrospective at the Whitney Museum here appears to be both a critical and popular success.

And why shouldn't it be? Its 168 paintings, watercolors, and drawings include many of Sargent's finest and most famous pieces. The show presents viewers with the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of his work in 60 years. And it is accompanied by a catalog that is a delight to read.

This show should, in short, serve as the final and most effective argument in the reestablishment of Sargent as one of the three or four best American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His contemporaries, of course, had no doubts as to his importance. To many, he was the greatest living artist, and to almost everyone, he was the outstanding portraitist of his age. From royalty and the aristocracy (who, by the way, assumed he was English) on down, everyone wanted to have his or her face immortalized by Sargent. And, thanks to the speed of his brush, a remarkably large number of them actually were depicted by him on canvas.

Even as a student, Sargent had the knack of capturing likenesses with a painterly flair that struck just the right note with the wealthy and successful men and women whose patronage he needed. He learned quickly and well, first in Florence (where he was born to American parents), and then in Paris in the studio of the fashionable portrait painter Carolus-Duran and at the prestigious 'Ecole des Beaux Arts.

His exceptional talent was recognized right from the start, not only by his fellow students and teachers but by the official Salon jury, which accepted a painting of his in 1877 and then awarded him an honorable mention in 1879 for his portrait ``Carolus-Duran.''

At age 23, Sargent's fame and fortune seemed assured. His Salon award attracted important commissions, and they, in turn, convinced a growing number of French notables to sit for him. Everything was going smoothly until, in 1884, he exhibited ``Madame X'' at the Salon and brought the full weight of French social and professional criticism down upon him for what was perceived as the painting's arrogant exhibitionism.

Concerned but undaunted, Sargent decided to try London, and soon struck gold with his portraits of the aristocracy, leaders of society, and famous figures in the arts. His popularity was further enhanced by the favorable reception afforded his impressionistic ``Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,'' a large painting depicting two young girls lighting Japanese lanterns in a flower garden at twilight.

He had found his professional home -- even though he continued to send works to the French Salon and spent a considerable portion of his time traveling in Spain, Italy, Egypt, and Greece. He visited the United States in 1887 (his only previous trip there had been in 1876) to fulfill a portrait commission. This was followed by another visit in 1889-90, during which he executed several portraits and agreed to join with Edwin Austin Abbey in painting murals for the new Boston Public Library building, a task that occupied him, off and on, for over 30 years.

Increasingly bored with being a portrait painter (he made over 800 during his lifetime), he turned more and more to figure compositions and landscapes, many of which were executed in watercolor. When portraits were demanded, he often complied with charcoal or pencil drawings. A number of these, including his sketches of Vernon Lee, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and William Butler Yeats, rank among the most brilliant portrait studies of the past century and place him among America's premier draftsmen.

Although his mural commissions occupied much of his time during his later years, he continued to travel and to paint many of the more than 1,800 pictures of Spanish gypsies, Greek goatherds, Alpine vistas, nomadic Bedouins, and Venetian churches and canals which have been instrumental in reestablishing his reputation in recent years. He died in London in 1925, having spent only a total of eight years on American soil.

Within a year, major retrospectives of his work were held at the Royal Academy in London and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His place in art history seemed assured.

Time and attitudes change, however, and within a decade, his name was more likely to provoke disdain than respect. Not until the early 1970s was it possible once again to speak well of him without apology, and not until 1980 or so dared one describe him as one of America's best and most brilliant painters.

But was he? If nothing else, this exhibition should prove he was. A few of his pictures, especially such smaller works as the 1882 portrait of Mrs. Daniel Sargent Curtis, several of his Venetian paintings, and a number of his rapidly executed outdoor studies (``Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife,'' ``The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy'') are among the minor glories of American art. And many of his oversize and more formal portraits -- while perhaps not quite on a level with Eakins's portraits -- are extraordinary accomplishments, nevertheless.

It is only in applying the word ``greatness'' to Sargent that we should hesitate. For all his brilliance and genius, he never really attained it -- or possibly even understood it. Perhaps he was too busy flitting around the world. Perhaps he was too enthralled by the surface effects of light, satin, and society to probe deeper. Or perhaps he simply lacked the ability to ennoble that characterizes truly great art.

After its closing at the Whitney on Jan. 4, this exhibition travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on view from Feb. 7 through April 19.

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