Born and come of age as the United States underwent its Reconstruction, perhaps the most important phase in its history, it is fitting that John Singer Sargent, one of his country’s finest ever artists, is undergoing a reputational Reconstruction that may well prove to be the most important phase in his history.
Blessed with a fundamental technical gift for painting, that power of graduated vision that can result in a form of visual artistry the eye cannot question, Singer Sargent proved to be the wrong man in the wrong place and the wrong time. His splendid portraiture was swept aside by the uncompromising advances of Picasso, Metzinger and Braque. With his brand of work appearing conservative and ideologically questionable, Singer Sargent did not enjoy the afterlife that his contemporary and highly international fame might have suggested he would. Richard Ormond’s outstandingly curated Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, open now at the National Portrait Gallery having enjoyed an ecstatic reception at the NPG and New York’s Metropolitan, intends and deserves to see this changed.
The saddest facet of the state of modern art is that a virtuosity as acute as Singer Sargent’s goes perennially undervalued, as if the technical profundity of Velázquez were not a universal artistic precedent to be continually strived for, but a mere gimmick of a single epoch. That Singer Sargent seems to be in constant attempt to reprise the accomplishment of, say, a Velázquez at a time when the heads of his younger peers were being drawn towards more abstract avenues in which notions of elegance were confounded (not for the artists themselves, but certainly for the receiving community), has counted against his reputation in recent years.
Perhaps another facet of Singer Sargent’s comparative anonymity as an American painter in the Edwardian era was his insistence on a fully Europeanised style that betrayed his American heritage. The most scandalous of his initial works, a Paris Salon submission, was Portrait of Madame X which was primarily intended to serve as the foundation to a career in France. Indeed, from his very literal meta-depiction of Claude Monet to Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, his work is almost scandalously French. His wonderfully interesting status as an almost bi-blood cosmopolitan is not evidently used as a lens for examining his often bewitching observations of moneyed ennui. As much as Group with Parasols deliquesces Singer Sargent’s subjects to the point of abstraction, his works nonetheless seldom dare far enough from Western European Impressionism or Edwardian portraiture to make a mark on the eyes at a merely stylistic level.
But to focus on the perception, and indeed the partial reality, of Singer Sargent as a society portrait master is precisely what this exhibition sets out not to do. Ormond’s assembly of the painter’s work reveals that his real interest was not in the chichi but in writers, artists, musicians and intellectuals, and discloses in kind an element that Singer Sargent remarkably captured again and again in his work: joy.
We see this in how portraits of Monet, of Bernareggi, betray a frantic artistic energy, as if Singer Sargent was attempting to paint a scene he knew was too fleeting to truly be caught. The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, on the other hand, depicts that less ecstatic but more assured joy: one of mellowed tone and of obliging ability to shape and shift the contents of memory.
The power to unassumingly illuminate is what characterises Singer Sargent and what perhaps made inevitable his later period of obscurity. His work is epitomised in the simple splendour of La Carmencita. It befits ‘splendid’, that most Edwardian of words. So too does Ormond’s intent to reveal to us again this artist who has so much to give – and the fruits of that intent? Simply splendid.
Richard Ormond’s Sargent: Portrait of Artists and Friends exhibition runs at the National Portrait Gallery until the 25th of May, 2015.