John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, by Stanley Olson. New York: St. Martin's Press. 307 pp. $16.95. In his long telling of the life of the painter John Singer Sargent, author Stanley Olson's problem emerges almost immediately, and he reiterates it frequently: Sargent's main interests were painting and music; he was a workaholic. But Olson does not claim to be an art historian. Too few illustrations of Sargent's paintings support the narrative, and even they are very poor monochromes. What was most important to the artist is of marginal concern to his biographer.
Sargent had a busy social life, it is true, enough for Max Beerbohm to have described him as ``one of the stock ornaments of dinner tables,'' but it was still an adjunct to his work. His conversation was considered and humorous, if hesitant in delivery. (Olson quotes an earlier biographer of Sargent, Evan Charteris, who said ``no man had more entirely homemade opinions.'') His kindness and generosity recur pleasantly throughout the book; he was an enthusiastic encourager and helper of musicians. He had certain unchanging, orderly habits, but his handwriting was illegible and his desk - like the dining room of one of his more abundant patrons, its walls smothered with Sargent's portraits of most members of the family - might well have earned the title ``Sargent's Mess.''
Even Sargent's weaknesses, as described by Olson, seem to engage little enough sympathy: He had a huge appetite; and he had a ``need'' for fame (a need certainly met in his lifetime - perhaps it prevented a real radicalism in his art). As for his relationships with others, with family and friends, Olson admits that he is not the first writer who has had to face the fact that while these were generally genial, considerate, and blameless, they seem somehow to have lacked vividness.
A confirmed bachelor to the end, his intimacy with two or three different women, as Olson describes it, was affectionate but inconclusive. Mary Hunter from the late 1890s on ``was granted the clearest run of Sargent's unknown emotions.... [She] had a sheltered place in his geography and became the next best thing to a confidante; next best because he had so little to confide.''
You can't help feeling for a biographer who arrives at an impasse like that. The puzzle is why Olson spent almost 300 close-knit pages on such an unrewarding subject. Nor as a painter does Sargent tempt Olson to place him on a pedestal. Olson's verdict is that he took conventions to the limit, but never beyond.
Olson doesn't challenge the consensus that has consigned the Boston murals - to which Sargent gave so much effort - to the aesthetic dust-heap. On the other hand, he doesn't belabor Sargent's rather pompous, old-guard dismissal in 1910 of the French post-impressionists when Roger Fry presented them to an unprepared British audience.
Some of Olson's most interesting passages are devoted to Sargent's methods of painting, and his methods of teaching. A student described the first: He painted a portrait ``with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste.'' And Vanessa Bell (who later changed her opinion) wrote in 1904 to a friend: ``Sargent is teaching most extraordinarily well.... The one thing he is down upon is when he thinks anyone is trying for an effect regardless of truth.''
Which touches finally on the Sargent paradox: how such a straightforward, honorable, honest man could be the force behind such showy brio, such swift wieldings and displays of brushwork, and such surface economy - how he could aim, in fact, so brilliantly at ``truth'' and yet, somehow, achieve only a dazzling, if often stimulating, effect.