Beyond the Portraits-The Watercolor Sargent

It is one of the curiosities of art history that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was once thought to be an Impressionist. He was characterized as such by Henry James in an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 1887, and it was not meant to be a compliment. (James later modified his judgment of Impressionism, but that is another story.) The champions of Impressionism–among them Claude Monet, with whom Sargent was on friendly terms–knew better, of course. According to Mary Cassatt, Monet once said of his American contemporary: “Sargent is a good fellow, but when he lunches with me, I do not talk painting.”

Yet something like an Impressionist impulse, if not exactly an Impressionist sensibility, is not to be discounted in Sargent’s painting, especially in his watercolors. There has probably never been a better opportunity to see what this impulse consists of than in the current exhibition in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Singer Sargent Beyond the Portrait Studio: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors from the Collection . It takes a lot of looking, however, in an exhibition that begins with many examples of Sargent’s juvenilia–drawings and watercolors starting at age 13–and numbers some 110 items in all.

This may be more Sargent than you are prepared to absorb, but what isn’t of compelling artistic interest–and there is much here that is, of course–does nonetheless throw a good deal of light on the special character of the artist’s career, which was itself like something in a Henry James novel. (James’ 1891 novella, The Pupil , is said to be based on Sargent’s nomadic boyhood in Europe.) He was born in Florence of American expatriate parents(from Philadelphia) who never established a permanent residence abroad. They lived their peripatetic life in hotels and other rented quarters on his mother’s private income, moving about Europe according to the seasons and her whims. Sargent’s early schooling was similarly erratic, but he seems to have picked up Italian, French and German on his own while receiving home instruction in other subjects from his father, a physician who had been persuaded by his wife to abandon his medical practice in the United States for a rootless life abroad.

The art of painting, which Sargent came to early with the encouragement of his mother, seems to have been his only anchor in life. (He also had a great interest in music, and is said to have been an accomplished pianist.) He never married, and is not known to have had romantic attachments of any sort. In his teens he studied painting in Paris, but as an adult he made London his professional headquarters–a typically shrewd decision, given the distance that separated his art from that of the French avant-garde. Yet he remained an American by choice, in later life even refusing knighthood in order to retain his U.S. citizenship. And it was with American portrait commissions–some 60 between 1887 and 1890–that he achieved his first success as a professional painter. His first solo exhibition was organized at the St. Botolph Club in Boston in 1888. He was 32.

In any comprehensive assessment of Sargent’s artistic achievement, his copious production of portraits would inevitably command first place. While the current Beyond the Portrait Studio exhibition at the Met is not, in fact, entirely devoid of portraits and portrait studies, its principal focus is on the “other” Sargent. This is the Sargent who learned his trade as a youth by studying the Old Masters and who, in his later work, divided his time away from the portrait studio between some fairly dismal mural commissions and the travels that allowed him to record his impressions of people and places with a pictorial candor and spontaneity seldom found in the commissioned portraits.

The latter give us a delightful glimpse of Sargent off-duty, so to speak, and among their felicities are some of the artist’s finest watercolors. Away from his professional obligations in London, New York, Boston and Newport, Sargent seems to have found a new freedom and lyricism in these watercolors, a fluency and transparency far removed from the practiced bravura and stylized light of the formal portraits. Unanticipated encounters in unfamiliar climes and situations–in the Canadian Rockies and the Florida sunshine and, most astonishingly, among British Tommies during World War I–elicited a clarity and vibrancy in the watercolor pictures not seen before. The light is always dazzling, the touch exquisitely delicate, and the emotion fresh and without amendment or artificial “finish.”

It won’t do, however, to confuse Sargent’s delightful and often moving watercolor sketches with the aesthetics of Impressionism. Whatever he may have learned from Monet, which had mainly to do with the rendering of sunlight in the open air, Sargent had no gift for formal invention. He remained a conventional realist even in his most spontaneous sketches. The radical innovations in Impressionist pictorial form were beyond his ken. “His painting,” wrote Fairfield Porter, “was full of discarded potentialities.” And Porter, who in my judgment was a greater painter than Sargent, went on to say of his paintings: “They are not part of anything–his sophistication made him aware of excellence but gave him no goal, his personality no shape, and his life no helpless mad direction. He was too sensible for madness and too modest to make the sort of artist that was implied by his dexterity and accurate vision.”

This, in my view, is the definitive criticism of Sargent for our time, and much of the interest in the current exhibition at the Met is to be found in its documentation of all those “discarded potentialities.”

John Singer Sargent Beyond the Portrait Studio: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors from the Collection remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 24.