It’s Time to Forgive Sargent For Making It Big in 1880’s

There are artists about whom critical opinion seems destined to remain forever divided. The American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Adelson Galleries, is certainly one of the classic examples. Few American painters of his generation enjoyed as much in the way of celebrity and support in their lifetime, particularly in the more fashionable purlieus of trans-Atlantic society. In a period when Thomas Eakins and James McNeill Whistler were still tainted by scandal and controversy, Sargent achieved a remarkably early success-the kind of success for which posterity has often found it difficult to forgive him.

It was not, to be sure, that Sargent was ever exempted from serious criticism even in the era that acclaimed him a master at an early age. The essay in which Henry James sounded the alarm about Sargent’s famous facility by asking whether “it may be better for an artist to have a certain part of his property invested in unsolved difficulties,” was written, after all, in 1893, when Sargent, not yet 40, already enjoyed enormous fame. Yet the doubts that were sometimes raised about the character of Sargent’s achievement by his contemporaries have proven to be even more costly to his posthumous reputation. The English critic Roger Fry codified this agenda of disparagement when, in an essay on the memorial exhibition devoted to Sargent at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1926, he denied him the right to be called an “artist” at all.

I am myself a great admirer of Roger Fry, but even the finest critics are rarely right about everything. Fry’s remorseless assault on Sargent’s exalted status had much more to do with the critic’s ongoing battle with British philistinism-specifically, its refusal to accept Paul Cézanne as a modern master-than with a disinterested study of whatever qualities may be found in Sargent’s own paintings. To judge Sargent by the standards of Cézanne may not constitute the capital offense that members of the Royal Academy in Fry’s day thought it did, but it doesn’t take us very far in understanding Sargent, either.

If Sargent wasn’t the towering genius that his privileged patrons on both sides of the Atlantic mistakenly believed him to be, he was nonetheless an uncommonly interesting figure. From an American perspective, moreover, he may be taken to represent a phenomenon that, until recently at least, was thought to be a permanent feature of American art: the problem of the American artist as a rootless cosmopolitan.

Forget, for the moment, the dazzling society portraits that earned Sargent a fortune at an early age. There will be time to return to that subject when the Tate Gallery in London mounts its promised Sargent retrospective in 1998. The current exhibition at the Adelson Galleries concentrates our attention on something else: the landscapes, cityscapes and figure paintings, in both oils and watercolor, that Sargent produced for his own delectation during his frequent travels. Whatever the pictorial equivalent of graphomania may be called, Sargent was apparently afflicted with it, and in every moment of release from his need to paint “mugs,” as he sometimes derisively called his portrait subjects, he indulged it to the full.

The exhibition that Warren Adelson has now devoted to a selection of these paintings is called Sargent Abroad , which, in view of the fact that Sargent was born in Florence, trained in Italy and France, achieved his greatest fame in London and remained an expatriate for most of his life, may not be the mot juste for a show largely drawn from European subjects. It was in America that the artist was least at home, which is undoubtedly why his watercolor of Alligators , painted in Florida in 1917, is the single most exotic picture in the exhibition.

Its title aside, however, Sargent Abroad does give us some vivid glimpses of the “other” Sargent, the Sargent on holiday from the studio, society and its commissions and obligations-an artist sans-gêne , so to speak, and thus at liberty to paint whatever catches his interest or tickles his fancy. Subjects are drawn from scenes in the Alps to travels in Palestine (where he produced an astonishingly “tough” painting of the Valley of Mar Seba in 1905), with that brief detour to Florida. The bulk of the exhibition is concentrated on Venice and the Mediterranean, however, where Sargent was clearly more “at home” than abroad, often in the company of friends and surrounded by congenial motifs.

In just about everything that we see in this show, Sargent’s quick-witted virtuosity-the unremitting facility that so much worried Henry James and that was so pleasing to the artist’s admirers-is on elegant display. If the result sometimes descends into picturesque cliché, it can also surprise us with a sudden feat of pictorial invention (the watercolor from around 1908 of a Reclining Figure , for example, is as close to an “abstract” painting as Sargent ever got). It won’t do to look for profound emotional involvement in most of these pictures, yet in some of the outdoor scenes in which his friends are shown resting in the afternoon sun, there is a warmth of feeling that is generally absent from Sargent’s depiction of strangers and inanimate objects.

There is one painting in the exhibition- The Hotel Room (circa 1908)-that is certain to convey a certain poignancy to anyone familiar with Sargent’s essentially itinerant life. As Mr. Adelson reminds us in a prologue to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, “The roots of Sargent’s aesthetic were bound to the vagabond life style of his parents,” who quit Philadelphia in 1854 for travel in Europe and never returned to the United States. “Their lives as expatriates were rootless, hopping from tourist site to site, governed usually by concerns of health and directed by appropriate climates.”

It was to this rootless life that Sargent was condemned from an early age, a life in which the hotel room and the hotel dining room were made to substitute for the domestic hearth. The only real “home” that Sargent was ever to know was, in fact, the painter’s studio, and it was to that refuge that he made his escape early on from the aimless wanderings of his befuddled parents. He was never really “at home” anywhere but in his art. What this cost him in the way of loneliness is almost terrifying to think about, but it accounts, I think, for the preternatural sense of detachment we inevitably discern in even his most sparkling and virtuosic pictorial feats.

Like most people who achieve worldly success, Sargent made his own luck. He understood that London, with its somewhat backward artistic standards, would suit an accommodating talent like his own far better than Paris, with its growing conflict between a reactionary academic establishment and an ambitious avant-garde. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to the innovations of the French avant-garde. He took from Impressionism-and from Monet in particular-as much as he felt his market could bear. But when, in the final period of his career, he was invited to produce a series of public murals in Boston, he reverted to the standards of the academic establishment, suppressing everything that is liveliest in the pictures that have been brought together in Sargent Abroad .

The exhibition remains on view at the Adelson Galleries, 25 East 77th Street (in the Mark Hotel), through Dec. 13. It’s Time to Forgive Sargent For Making It Big in 1880’s