Bringing Europe to England
Simon Blow on how Henry James persuaded John Singer Sargent to go to London John Singer Sargent must have con- tributed to Henry James's imagination. He was ideal James material. Sargent, a New Englander born in Florence of itinerant parents, who turned their back on America so as not to miss 'the train of life' in Europe, was everything that Henry James looked for. No surprise that James should have tracked him down and befriended him. The two men met in Paris, where James, Sargent's senior by ten years, first saw the artist's work. "The only Franco- American of importance here strikes me as young John Singer Sargent, the painter, who has high talent, a charming nature, artistic and personal, and is civilised to his finger tips,' James declared.
Sargent had already exhibited and at that time, 1884, a controversy was about to break in Paris over his now celebrated and admired portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau (`Madame X'). The characteris- tics of this young girl of 23, who was renowned for her use of white powder to further whiten a pale complexion, and for her eccentric chiselled features, were fully brought home in Sargent's image of her. The French critics attacked Sargent. The painting was denounced. Virginie's mother burst into his studio. 'Ma fille est perdue,' she cried, 'tout Paris se moque d'elle. Mon genre sera force de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin.'
It was now that Henry James counselled his friend to settle in London. Paris, James felt, had taught him all it could. For a while Sargent hesitated — his whole experience was Paris, he was entirely French taught. And then Sargent moved to London. Tite Street in Chelsea was to be his home for the rest of his life. There was only one problem. He wasn't at all English in his style of paint- ing. England was still dominated by the Pre- Raphaelites, but here was a man who ignored detail, so essential to them. Sar- gent was to tell a student, 'Do not concen- trate so much on the features. Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple.' Whereas Sargent was generous in his appreciation of this English school, they didn't care for him. Burne-Jones found in Sargent 'such a want of finish'.
It is extraordinary that Sargent not only completely overcame these reservations but in no time became the portraitist that everyone wanted. The English, and in par- ticular the upper class, came to appreciate his highly individual evocative strokes that dramatised the subject by light and colour, a style he had developed in France. They quite forgot that frogs and wogs began at Dover, and he received commission after commission. Some, like the characterful Sir George Sitwell, thoroughly approved of the way Sargent executed a painting. For he didn't stand before the canvas carefully applying paint, but took great leaps and stabs at it, literally rushing from a distance. And often shouting, too. This, Sir George considered, was how an artist ought to work. For Sargent, this flying at the canvas was his method of not deadening with the precise, of giving his subjects life, panache and immediacy.
He was England's new van Dyck, although his spirit in paint was Velazquez. My great-great grandfather, the Hon. Percy Wyndham, whose house in Belgrave Square had been embellished by Frederic Leighton, asked Sargent — the antithesis of Leighton — to paint his three daughters. This painting of my great-grandmother, Pamela, sitting between her two sisters, was one of Sargent's largest portrait groups. The canvas measured 10ft x 7ft, thereby suggesting the enormous space in which the aristocracy have to live. Sargent then The Wyndham Sisters, 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York was the man to paint them. From Belgrave Square, he went on to Welbeck, Chatsworth and Blenheim. He painted Lord Ribblesdale, Master of the Royal Buckhounds and an aristocrat who just about topped it for arrogance and cool, in his riding breeches and vast overcoat. That Lord Ribblesdale's father had run severely out of cash and taken his family into exile in Fontainebleau was no matter. Here was a painter who could make the British aris- tocracy believe themselves quite indestruc- tible, however illusory that might be.
All the while, Henry James watched from the wings, making notes and unable to resist interfering. James said to a sitter, `Cultivate indifference ... be as difficult for him as possible; and the more difficult you are the more the artist will be condemned to worry over you, repainting, revolutionis- ing, till he, in a rage of ambition and admi- ration, arrives at the thing.' But Sargent didn't need this, he knew where he was going, and when it suited him gave every- one the slip.
'No more paughtraits,' he told a friend. 'I abhor and adjure them and hope never to paint another, especially of the upper class- es.' So he would take off to Venice, with one of his two sisters as companion, and get on with the real business of painting scenes rather than people. But then he would return and fall back into the portrait trap. Again, he would fight free of it. He wrote to Lady Radnor, 'Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns ... but not the human face.' He may once have enjoyed his fame, but he withdrew, too, from being a social animal. Nancy Astor pursued him to the point of claiming cousinship. 'Cliveden is not for me,' he told her point blank. 'What is this mawbid wish to civilise a horny-handed son of toil? Who can't even spell.'
Sargent was capable of lasting friend- ships, which for him were easier than time spent, and possibly wasted, on sexual rela- tionships. Whatever his sexual needs, he appears to have sublimated them. His clos- est companions were other artists, some in France and some in England. He settled for a while in a house in Broadway in Worcestershire, and shared it with other painters and artistic folk. Apart from Paul Helleu and Claude Monet, most of his companions are lost to oblivion. But Monet, for Sargent, became the most vital source of inspiration. They had first met in Paris in the 1870s, when Sargent was still a pupil of Carolus-Duran, a good teacher, but otherwise a painter blinded by a con- ceit which far exceeded his talent. Sargent had taken from Carolus-Duran the hint about Velazquez but, to escape the portrait label, Sargent wanted to be seen as an Impressionist, like Monet. But Monet said, `He wasn't an Impressionist ... he was too much influenced by Carolus-Duran.'
From 1914 onwards Sargent painted few portraits and pretty well kept to his rule of charcoal drawings only. 'Mug shots' he called them. The Venice watercolours, the scene paintings, were of far more impor- tance to him. But his reputation lay else- where.
Sargent's unflagging energy produced a dazzling display of techniques. He was unable to stop working. Like Henry James in his novels, he brought Europe to Eng- land. And if James was too long-winded in conversation, Sargent, as life went on, grew awkward. Inscribed on his grave is the epi- graph `Laborare est Orare' — to work is to pray. Many would say he had the great good fortune to demand nothing further.
The Tate Gallery's exhibition John Singer Sargent, sponsored by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, runs until 17 January and will be reviewed next week.