John Singer Sargent: American School

(From "Treasury of Art Masterpieces")

By Thomas Craven
Copyright©1939 - 1958

At the galleries of the Royal Academy in London, in the year 1926, a memorial exhibition of Sargent’s paintings was placed before tbe public. It was an enormous exhibition; for Sargent, besides his work in murals, water color and landscape, painted more than five hundred portraits — and the ensuing laudations were resounding and extravagant. The least critical enthusiasm, naturally enough, came from the subjects themselves, all of whom, if not distinguished, were socially prominent; but to the public as well, Sargent was the sovereign portrait artist of modern times. Furthermore, despite his American parentage and French training, he was a British institution, a cultured gentleman, and for forty years the historian of high life in Great Britain.

Sargent bore his honors modestly and in his last years with a distressing consciousness of his limitations which prompted him to abandon portraiture for landscape. He worked hard and with a uniformity of excellence astonishing even in a man so generously gifted as an executant. His rightness in proportions was microscopically unerring — he never missed a dimension, or varied a hairsbreadth from the exact size and just relationships of features; he was a dead shot at likenesses; his eye was never confused and his hand the obedient and skillful servant of his eye. He was not a probing psychologist and he was not greatly interested in character; but as a portrayer of men and women wearing, not too sbrinkingly, the attributes of social position, he was without a peer.

Sargent’s best work is his series of portraits of the Wertheimer family, painted between the years 1898 and 1902, and inducing in him, he said, “a state of chronic Wertheimerism.” He painted the father, a great art dealer with a sublime admiration for Sargent, the mother, the numerous children — young and old, single and wedded, en masse and separately — ten pictures in all. The artist neither flattered nor maligned them: he turned his cold observant eye on them — as he did on all his sitters — and transferred to canvas as much as he could grasp at a single impression — and no more of a family moving with ducal importance in high society. His Asher Wertheimer, the art dealer, is a peering masterpiece – the portrait of a plutocrat who, by virtue of an artist’s great prestige, planted himself and his family in one of the great national galleries. For this service, Sargent, according to Roger Fry, became “the brilliant ambassador between Asher Wertheimer and posterity.”

Thomas Craven Copyright©1939 - 1958

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