The daring traditionalist

The paintings of American artist John Singer Sargent, subject of a major traveling exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington are easy to describe.

They are deft; they have brio; they scintillate with changing light. They are realistic, yet romantic. They are daring, while remaining traditional in both subject and outlook.

At the apogee of his fame as a portrait painter to the elite, Sargent's position in the pantheon of 19th- and early 20th-century artists looked solid and assured. Yet after his death in 1925, his reputation shrank in the face of modernism.

Sargent had rocked conventions on occasion in his early career. He even exhibited alongside Claude Monet. But he was not really among the Impressionists, those radically anti-establishment Parisian artists.

Trained in Paris, he adapted some of the fresh styles and innovations of these avant-garde artists, especially Edouard Manet.

But it was in the more acceptable world of the French Salon and the British Royal Academy that he was to establish his reputation. In those contexts, he was quite dramatic and surprising enough to make waves. If his painting owed something to the Impressionists, he still did not follow, as they did, mile Zola's injunction to become "a painter of modern life." In many ways he was a nostalgist.

A current exhibition, which began at the Tate Gallery in London, and after Washington goes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the first large-scale look since 1926 at this transatlantic artist's many and sometimes contradictory sides. Gradually there has been a reinstatement of his reputation. (Though it must be said that there are a number of his masterpieces that have always been valued by the museums that own them and are popular with visitors as well.)

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" has long graced the MFA with its haunting and quiescent presence. Another in the show is a charming study of childhood, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."

Though neither painting can be dismissed as emulative, the first shows his awareness of Degas (not to mention Velzquez). Though he was an eighth-generation American, Sargent was international from birth. He was born in Florence, Italy, into a family on the move around Europe, and became a French, British, and American artist in equal measures.

Sargent's art, as shown in this exhibition, intermixes the public and the private. The public domain of his work was portraiture, along with a lengthy project he dedicated himself to with the utmost solemnity, the murals in the Boston Public Library.

These two sides of Sargent make a strange contrast. The portraits are a dashing, almost impulsive evocation of a period, often matching the aristocratic bearing of his wealthy clients. But he was so sought after as a portrait painter of fine, tall figures (earning Rodin's apt summation as "the Van Dyck of our times") that eventually he cried, "No more!"

The Boston murals, to which he wanted to give more time, have not suffered posterity gladly. It might seem regrettable that he sacrificed further portraiture for this. But he also continued as a "private" artist, painting for his own pleasure, and produced in his later years strong, deceptively relaxed landscapes; highly original paintings of women prone in the sunshine, their billowing dresses painted as if they were themselves landscapes; and apparently easeful watercolors that could only come from the hand of a supremely experienced magician-of-the-brush.

The magic terminated, however, with yet another twist in an unpredictable career. Sargent became a war artist, painting wreckage and soldiery with the same watercolor deftness with which he had painted peacetime lemons and fountains in a Tuscan garden or lazy gondolas water-lapped in Venice.

The show includes his large masterwork of this last period, "Gassed," which epitomizes the horror of World War I. It amounts to Sargent's final heroic bid, in muted style, to be remembered for something more serious than elegance and hauteur.

But for all its effort - it is closer to socialist realism than to high society's frivolity - somehow it isn't really Sargent. It is far too dreary.

*'John Singer Sargent' is at the National Gallery in Washington through May 31. It will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from June 23 to Sept. 26.

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