JOHN SINGER SARGENT (1856) is an artist who cannot be limited to any country or any time. We are proud to claim him as an American, but we are still prouder to recognise that he is one of the great portrait painters of the world. Besides being endowed as he is by nature with almost every gift that makes a perfect technician, he has that varied gift, genius, which stamps his work as coming from a master’s brush. Mr. Sargent was born in Florence into a home of culture and refinement. What more could a talented child have had to perfect him than he had in that home and in that art centre of the world? When at eighteen he entered Carolus Duran’s studio in Paris he took with him the American temperament, so quick and susceptible to impressions, united with an appreciation of the truly beautiful in art absorbed from the grand old masters of the past. After his studies in Paris he went to Spain, where, in the works of the great Spanish painter, Velasquez, he found that perfection in simplicity of handling, in the relationship between colour and light, in surrounding every object with atmosphere, and in freedom from all mannerism which supplied the very requisites most needed in forming his own methods and Mr. Sargent’s methods are decidedly his own.
Certainly “arrested action” was never a truer description of any portrait of Mr. Sargent’s than in that of the “Misses Boit” (Fig. 114), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The children have stopped just for a moment to watch the artist paint; he “dashes it right off carelessly” but with a rapidity of skill that is directed by an acutely trained mind. An Englishman once said of Sargent, “As the Americans say, he works like a steam engine.” Sargent’s concentration of mind is such that when a line is once drawn it remains he does nothing in a hurry.
The decorative quality of the picture of the Boit children is like that of any harmoniously furnished room after four little girls have entered and given the warmth of childhood to the furniture. These little. girls are darlings ; but all children are darlings when their lives are regulated by the taste and skill of thinking parents. Taste and skill yes, those are the qualities that Mr. Sa gent puts into his pictures. Nothing is do e in a haphazard manner, but the beauty of t all is that no trace of the manner of doing is felt in the result. Each little girl has a definite personality, yet who can fathom the method by which the artist has brought out that personality? We only know that what he has done “lives and breathes and moves and quivers.”
Mr. Sargent’s portraits are not simply personal character sketches; his habit seems to be to study the character of humanity en masse, and then the individual is treated more as a type in which a certain temperament is emphasised. Perhaps this is best illustrated in his portraits representing public characters, as Coventry Patmore, the poet, and again in “Carmencita” (Fig. 115), the Spanish ballet-dancer. It is not alone this particular dancing girl, as she appeared b. fore the Paris students in all her insolent beauty and charming grace, that Mr. Sargent was acme of the dancer’s a this painting in the sparkle and glitter of gown fairly takes our breath. We feel that we have come suddenly before a brilliantly lighted stage.
Mr. Chase has a picture of “Carmencita” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of which Sargent might say, as did Michael Angelo when he saw Raphael’s “Sybil,” “He has walked through my chapel !” Alike, and yet how different ! Both are marvels of the painter’s art.
When Mr. Sargent painted the “Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley” (Fig. 116), John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, he gave a masterpiece of rare value, portraying Indiana’s most distinguished son. It is easy to grasp, from Mr. Sargent’s likeness of him, the genuine quality in Mr. Riley that has made his dialect writing a success.
When Mr. Riley chose Benjamin F. Johnson as a sobriquet he created a real character. An aged, uneducated rustic was Johnson, who said to himself, in his own words: “From child-hood up tel old enough to vote, I allus wrote more or less poetry, as many an album in the neighbourhood can testify . . . from the hart out.”. The public at once recognised the ring of truth in the “Old Swimmin’ Hole” and scores of other poems. Mr. Riley began to absorb the characteristics of the “hoosier” – perhaps derived from “Who’s yere?” – when a mere child. He was the constant companion of his father, an attorney-at-law, and on court days in some obscure corner of the courtroom he was unconsciously preparing for his future career. Several of his earlier years were spent wandering over the country decorating the fences and roadsides with business signs to please the people and entice their trade. At one time he even had yearnings toward portrait painting, but signs brought larger returns for his time.
With such a man as fames Whitcomb Riley for a subject, Mr. Sargent must have felt the tingle of a war-horse on his mettle. And the portrait is proof that he recognised the subtle traits of the man who is known as the “Burns of America.” The portrait is true to the man – humorous yet ever kindly, witty with no sting, seeing weakness but with the sympathy of a true friend, quick to scent the absurd but quicker to heal the hurt – such is a true picture of James Whitcomb Riley (1853-1916).
Mr. Sargent is perfectly at home in portraying the tragedy queen, as his painting of “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” (rig. 117) testifies. One critic writes: “Sargent’s picture of her (Ellen Terry) will stand out among pictures of distinguished women as one who bears no resemblance to anybody else.” It would hardly be possible to conceive of a more subtle union of characters into a perfect being than is portrayed in his Lady Macbeth. It is Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, and yet it is Ellen Terry who has made her alive. It is Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth, and yet it is Mr. Sargent who has caught her on canvas in his own original way without detracting in the smallest measure from her originality. The three characters are perfectly distinct, yet perfectly blended. This portrait of “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” is in the Tate Gallery, London. In Mr. Sargent’s “Carnation Lily, Lily Rose” (Fig. 118), in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, we feel that rare sympathy where every brush-stroke is a token of love. And we know at once that the friendship between the artist and these little girls is a very close one. The scene represents an English garden just at twilight. The two little girls, standing in a thicket of green leaves and bright flowers, are lighting Japanese lanterns. The reddish rays from the candles gleam and tremble on the foliage and the simple dresses of the little lamp-lighters. Nothing could be simpler or more sincere than these dainty misses intent on the task before them. As a piece of decoration this picture is simply superb. It is an exquisite bit of nature softened by the evening shade and made permanent on canvas by a true artist.
Nearly a decade ago it was rumoured in London that Mr. Sargent was tired of painting portraits, which meant simply that this artist would paint something else with equal skill. It also meant that in turning from the incessant demands of sitters in high places, Mr. Sargent could paint his marvellous landscapes and mountain regions where the working people and the Tyrolese peasants are his sitters. These scenes are no less portraits because they are pictures.
In the “Tyrolese Interior” (Fig. 119), Metropolitan Museum of Art, the group around the table is just as individual in characterisation as is the Boit group of children. Deifra-ger, the German artist, has devoted much of his work to the Tyrolese peasants, yet in none of his pictures is the religious spirit of the mountaineers so impelling as in this one. So fervent is the spirit of religious fervour that each meal is eaten with the crucified Christ looking down in blessing. Even the light is a benediction under Mr. Sargent’s illuminating brush. The warmth of a holy communion is in this home, rough as the exterior seems. Such a picture breathes pure religion in the very joy of colour and light and breadth of handling under a master’s touch.