John S. Sargent by Henry James

***In reading up on Sargent and, in particular, his Daughters of Edward Darley Boit for a new article for this website, I came across this writing by Henry James, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in October of 1887. Due to my attraction to the works of James and to a subject I find of great interest, I have incorporated James’ article with pictures which he refers to. The article by me on the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit will soon appear.***

John S. Sargent

I WAS on the point of beginning this sketch of the work of an artist to whom distinction has come very early in life by saying, in regard to the degree to which the subject of it enjoys the attention of the public, that no American painter has hitherto won himself such recognition from the expert; but I find myself pausing at the start as on the edge of a possible solecism. Is Mr. Sargent in very fact an American painter? The proper answer to such a question is doubtless that we shall be well advised to claim him, and the reason of this is simply that we have an excellent opportunity. Born in Europe, he has spent his life in Europe, but none the less the burden of proof would rest with those who should undertake to show that he is a European. Moreover he has even on the face of it this great symptom of an American origin, that in the line of his art he might easily be mistaken for a Frenchman. It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for “American art” we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it. Mr. Sargent came up to the irresistible city in his twentieth year, from Florence, where in 1856 he had been born of American parents, and where his fortunate youth had been spent. He entered immediately the studio of Carolus Duran, and revealed himself in 1877, at the age of twenty-two, in the portrait of his master—a fine model in more than one sense of the word. He was already in possession of a style; and if this style has gained both in delicacy and in assurance, it has not otherwise varied. As he saw and “rendered” ten years ago, so he sees and renders to-day; and I may add that there is no present symptom of his passing into another manner.


Image result

Portrait of Carolus Duran, Oil on Canvas, 1879.

Those who have appreciated his work most up to the present time emit no wish for a change, so completely does that work seem to them, in its kind, the exact translation of his thought, the exact “fit” of his artistic temperament. It is difficult to imagine a young painter being less in the dark about his own ideal, having from the first more the air of knowing what he desires. In an altogether exceptional degree does he give us the sense that an intention and the art of carrying it out are for him one and the same thing. In the brilliant portrait of Carolus Duran, which he was speedily and strikingly to surpass, he gave almost the full measure of this admirable peculiarity, that perception with him is already by itself a kind of execution. It is likewise so, of course, with many another genuine painter; but in Mr. Sargent’s case the process by which the object seen resolves itself into the object pictured is extraordinarily immediate. It is as if painting were pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling.

From the time of his first successes at the Salon he was hailed, I believe, as a recruit of high value to the camp of the Impressionists, and to-day he is for many people most conveniently pigeon-holed under that head. It is not necessary to protest against the classification if this addition always be made to it, that Mr. Sargent’s impressions happen to be interesting. This is by no means inveterately the case with those of the ingenuous artists who most rejoice in the title in question. To render the impression of an object may be a very fruitful effort, but it is not necessarily so; that will depend upon what, I won’t say the object, but the impression, may have been. The talents engaged in this school lie, not unjustly, as it seems to me, under the suspicion of seeking the solution of their problem exclusively in simplification. If a painter works for other eyes as well as his own, he courts a certain danger in this direction —that of being arrested by the cry of the spectator: “Ah! but excuse me; I myself take more impressions than that.” We feel a synthesis not to be an injustice only when it is rich. Mr. Sargent simplifies, I think, but he simplifies with style, and his impression in most cases is magnificent.

His work has been almost exclusively in portraiture, and it has been his fortune to paint more women than men; therefore he has had but a limited opportunity to reproduce that generalized grand air with which his view of certain figures of gentlemen invests the model, which is conspicuous in the portrait of Carolus Duran, and of which his splendid “Docteur Pozzi,” the distinguished Paris surgeon (a work not sent to the Salon), is an

Image result for Docteur Pozzi

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi, Oil on Canvas, 1881.

admirable example. In each of these cases the model has been of a gallant pictorial type, one of the types which strike us as made for portraiture (which is by no means the way of all), as especially appears, for instance, in the handsome hands and frilled wrists of M. Carolus, whose cane rests in his fine fingers as if it were the hilt of a rapier. The most brilliant of all Mr. Sargent’s productions is the portrait of a young lady [Madame Ramon Subercaseaux], the magnificent picture which lie exhibited in 1881; and if it has mainly been his fortune since to commemorate the fair faces of women, there is no ground for surprise at this sort of success on the part of one who had given so signal a proof of his having the secret of the particular aspect that the contemporary lady (of any period) likes to wear in the eyes of posterity. Painted when he was but four-and-twenty years of age, the picture by which Mr. Sargent was represented at the Salon of 1881 is a performance which may well have made any critic of imagination rather anxious about his future. In common with the superb group of the children of Mr. Edward Boit, exhibited two years later, it offers the slightly “uncanny” spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. It is not simply precocity in the guise of maturity—a phenomenon we very often meet, which deceives us only for an hour; it is the freshness of youth combined with the artistic experience, really felt and assimilated, of generations. My admiration for this deeply distinguished work is such that I am perhaps in danger of overstating its merits; but it is worth taking into account that to-day, after several years of acquaintance with them, these merits seem to me more and more to justify enthusiasm. The picture has this sign of productions of the first order, that its style clearly would save it, if everything else should change—our measure of its value of resemblance, its expression of character, the fashion of dress, the particular associations it evokes. It is not only a portrait, but a picture, and it arouses even in the profane spectator something of the painter’s sense, the joy of engaging also, by sympathy, in the solution of the artistic problem. There are works of which it is sometimes said that they are painters’ pictures (this description is apt to be intended invidiously), and the production of which I speak has the good fortune at once to belong to this class, and to give the “plain man” the kind of pleasure that the plain man looks for.

Image result for Madame Ramon Subercaseaux

Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, Oil on Canvas, 1880 (exhibited 1881).

Image result for Lady with the Rose

The Lady With the Rose, Oil on Canvas, 1882.

The young lady [Lady with the Rose], dressed in black satin, stands upright, with her right hand bent back, resting on her waist, while the other, with the arm somewhat extended, offers to view a single white flower. The dress, stretched at the hips over a sort of hoop, and ornamented in front, where it opens on a velvet petticoat, with large satin bows, has an old-fashioned air, as if it had been worn by some demure princess who might have sat for Velasquez. The hair, of which the arrangement is odd and charming, is disposed in two or three curls fastened at one side over the temple with a comb. Behind the figure is the vague faded sheen, exquisite in tone, of a silk curtain, light, undefined, and losing itself at the bottom. The face is young, candid, peculiar, and delightful. Out of these few elements the artist has constructed a picture which it is impossible to forget, of which the most striking is its simplicity, and yet which overflows with perfection. Painted with extraordinary breadth and freedom, so that surface and texture are interpreted by the lightest hand, it glows with life, character, and distinction, and strikes us as the most complete—with one exception perhaps—of the author’s productions. I know not why this representation of a young girl in black, engaged in the casual gesture of holding up a flower, should make so ineffaceable an impression, and tempt one to become almost lyrical in treated the theme. We can fancy that on its praise; but I well remember that, encountering the picture unexpectedly in New York a year or two after it had been exhibited in Paris, it seemed to me to have acquired an extraordinary general value, to stand for more artistic truth than it would be easy to declare, to be a masterpiece of color as well as of composition, to possess much in common with a Velasquez of the first order, and to have translated the appearance of things into the language of painting with equal facility and brilliancy. The language of painting— that is the tongue in which, exclusively, Mr. Sargent expresses himself, and of an actual scene, with its accidents and into which a considerable part of the public, for the simple and excellent reason that they don’t understand it, will doubtless always be reluctant and unable to follow him. The notation of painting, as one may call it—the signs by which objects are represented — is a very special affair, and of the special the public at large has always a perceptible mistrust. Fortunately the spirit, the feeling, of this magnificent art is not special, but as general and comprehensive as life itself.

Two years before he exhibited the young lady in black, in 1879, Mr. Sargent had spent several months in Spain, and here, even more than he had already been, the great Velasquez became the god of his idolatry. No scenes are more delightful to the imagination than those in which we figure youth and genius confronted with great examples, and if such matters did not belong to the domain of private life we might entertain ourselves with reconstructing the episode of the first visit to the museum of Madrid, the shrine of the painter of Philip IV., of a young Franco-American worshipper of the highest artistic sensibility, expecting a supreme revelation, and prepared to fall on his knees. It is evident that Mr. Sargent fell on his knees, and that in this attitude he passed characteristic a considerable part of his sojourn in Spain . He is various and experimental; if I am not mistaken, he sees each work that he produces in a light of its own, and does not turn off successive portraits according to some well-tried receipt which has proved useful in the case of their predecessors; nevertheless there is one idea that pervades them all, in a different degree, and gives them a family resemblance— the idea that it would be inspiring to know just how the great Spaniard would have treated the theme. We can fancy that on each occasion Mr. Sargent, as a solemn preliminary, invokes him as a patron saint. This is not, in my intention, tantamount to saying that the large canvas representing the contortions of a dancer in the lamp-lit room of a posada, which he – exhibited on his return from Spain [El Jaleo], strikes me as having come into the world under the same star as those great compositions of Velasquez which at Madrid alternate with his royal portraits. This singular work, which has found a somewhat incongruous home in Boston, 


El Jaleo, Oil on Canvas, 1882.

has the stamp of an extraordinary energy and facility— of an actual scene, with its accidents and peculiarities caught, as distinguished from a composition where arrangement and invention have played their part. It looks like life, but it looks also, to my view, rather like a perversion of life, and as the quality of an enormous “note” or memorandum, rather than of a representation. A woman in a very voluminous white silk dress and black mantilla is pirouetting in the middle of a dusky room, to the accompaniment of her own castanets, and that of a row of men and women who sit in straw chairs against the white-washed wall, and thrum upon guitar and tambourine, or lift other castanets into the air. She appears almost colossal, and the twisted and inflated folds of her long dress increase her volume. She simpers, in profile, with a long chin, while she slants back at a dangerous angle, and the lamp-light (it proceeds from below, as if she were on a big platform) makes a strange play in her large face. In the background the straight line of black-clad, black-hatted, white-shirted musicians projects shadows against the wall, on which placards, guitars, and dirty finger-marks display themselves. The merit of this production is that the air of reality is given in it with remarkable breadth and boldness; its defect it is difficult to express, save by saying that it makes the spectator vaguely uneasy and even unhappy—-an accident the more to be regretted as a lithe, inspired female figure, given up to the emotion of the dance, is not intrinsically a displeasing object. “El Jaleo” sins, in my opinion, in the direction of ugliness, and, independently of the fact that the heroine is circling round incommoded by her petticoats, has a want of serenity.

Fumée d'ambre gris , Oil on Canvas, 1880.

Fumée d’ambre gris , Oil on Canvas, 1880.


This is not the defect of the charming, dusky, white – robed person who, in the Tangerine subject exhibited at the Salon of 1880 [Fumée d’Ambre Gris] (the fruit of an excursion to the African coast at the time of the artist’s visit to Spain), stands on a rug, under a great white Moorish arch, and from out of the shadows of the large drapery, raised pentwise by her hands, which covers her head, looks down, with painted eyes and brows showing above a bandaged mouth, at the fumes of a beautiful censer or chafing-dish placed on the carpet. I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; but in her muffled contemplation and her pearl-colored robes, under her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable. The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminated tones.

In dividing the honor that Mr. Sargent has won by his finest work between the portrait of the young lady of 1881 [Madame Ramon Subercaseaux] and the group of four young girls which was painted in 1882 [Daughters of Edward Darley Boit], and exhibited, with the success it deserved, the following year, I must be careful to give the latter picture not too small a share. The artist has done nothing more felicitous and interesting than this view of a rich, dim, rather generalized French interior (the perspective of a hall with a shining floor, where screens and tall Japanese vases shimmer and loom), which encloses the life and seems to form the happy play-world of a family of charming children. The treatment is eminently unconventional, and there is none of the usual symmetrical balancing of the figures in the foreground. The place is regarded as a whole; it is a scene, a comprehensive impression; yet none the less do the little figures in their white pinafores (when was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?) detach themselves, and live with a personal life. Two of the sisters stand hand in hand at the back, in the delightful, the almost equal, company of a pair of immensely tall emblazoned jars, which overtop them, and seem also to partake of the life of the picture; the splendid porcelain and the aprons of the children shine together, and a mirror in the brown depth behind them catches the light. Another little girl presents herself, with abundant tresses and slim legs, her hands behind her, quite to the left; and the youngest, nearest to the spectator, sits on the floor and plays with her doll. The naturalness of the composition, the loveliness of the complete effect, the light, free security of the execution, the sense it gives us as of assimilated secrets and instinct and knowledge playing together—all this makes the picture as astonishing a work on the part of a young man of twenty-six as the portrait of 1881 was astonishing on the part of a young man of twenty-four.


Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Oil on Canvas, 1882.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Oil on Canvas, 1882.

It is these remarkable encounters that justify us in writing almost prematurely of a career which is not yet half unfolded. Mr. Sargent is sometimes accused of a want of “finish,” but if finish means the last word of expressiveness of touch, “The Hall with the Four Children,” as we may call it, may stand as a permanent reference on this point. If the picture of the Spanish dancer illustrates, as it seems to me to do, the latent dangers of the Impressionist practice, so this finer performance shows what victories it may achieve. And in relation to the latter I must repeat what I said about the young lady with the flower, that this is the sort of work which, when produced in youth, leads the attentive spectator to ask unanswerable questions. He finds himself murmuring, “Ay, but what is left?” and even wondering whether it is an advantage to an artist to obtain early in life such possession of his means that the struggle with them, the discipline of tatonnement, ceases to exist for him. May not this breed an irresponsibility of cleverness, a wantonness, an irreverence— what is vulgarly termed a “larkiness”— on the part of the youthful genius who has, as it were, all his fortune in his pocket? Such are the possibly superfluous broodings of those who are critical, even in their warmest admirations, and who sometimes suspect that it may be better for an artist to have a certain part of his property invested in unsolved difficulties. When this is not the case, the question with regard to his future simplifies itself somewhat portentously. “What will he do with it?” we ask, meaning by the pronoun the sharp, completely forged weapon. It becomes more purely a question of responsibility, and we hold him altogether to a higher account. This is the case with Mr. Sargent; he knows so much about the art of painting that he perhaps does not fear emergencies quite enough, and that having knowledge to spare, he may be tempted to play with it and waste it. Various, curious, as we have called him, he occasionally tries experiments which seem to arise from the mere high spirits of his brush, and runs risks little courted by the votaries of the literal, who never expose their necks to escape from the common. For the literal and the common he has the smallest taste when he renders an object into the language of painting, his translation is a generous paraphrase.

As I have intimated, he has painted little but portraits; but he has painted very many of these, and I shall not attempt in so few pages to give a catalogue of his works. Every canvas that has come from his hands has not figured at the Salon; some of them have seen the light at other exhibitions in Paris; some of them in London (of which city Mr. Sargent is now an inhabitant), at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery. If he has been mainly represented by portraits, there are two or three little subject-pictures of which I retain a grateful memory. There stands out in particular, as a pure gem, a small picture exhibited at the Grosvenor, representing a small group of Venetian girls of the lower class, sitting in gossip together one summer’s day in the big, dim hall of a shabby old palazzo [Venetian Interior]. The shutters let in a clink of light; the scagliola pavement gleams faintly in it; the whole place is bathed in a kind of transparent shade; the tone of the picture is dark and cool.

A Venetian Interior, Oil on Canvas, 1880-82.

A Venetian Interior, Oil on Canvas, 1880-82.


The girls are vaguely engaged in some very humble household work; they are counting turnips or stringing onions, and these small vegetables, enchantingly painted, look as valuable as magnified pearls. The figures are extraordinarily natural and vivid; wonderfully light and fine is the touch by which the painter evokes all the small familiar Venetian realities (he has handled them with a vigor altogether peculiar in various other studies which I have not space to enumerate [Venetian Studies]), and keeps the whole thing free from that element of humbug which has ever attended most attempts to reproduce the Italian picturesque. I am, however, drawing to the end of my remarks without having mentioned a dozen of those brilliant triumphs in the field of portraiture with which Mr. Sargent’s name is preponderantly associated. I jumped from his Carolus Duran to the masterpiece of 1881 without speaking of the charming “Madame Pailleron” of 1879, or the picture of this lady’s children the following year.

Image result for Madame Pailleron

Madame Pailleron, Oil on Canvas, 1979.

Many, or rather most, of Mr. Sargent’s sitters have been French, and he has studied the physiognomy of this nation so attentively that a little of it perhaps remains in the brush with which to-day, more than in his first years, he represents other types. I have alluded to his superb “Docteur Pozzi,” to whose very handsome, still youthful head and slightly artificial posture he has given so fine a French cast that he might be excused if he should, even on remoter pretexts, find himself reverting to it. This gentleman stands up in his brilliant red dressing-gown with the prestance of certain figures of Vandyck. I should like to commemorate the portrait of a lady of a certain age, and of an equally certain interest of appearance—a lady in black, with black hair, a black hat, and a vast feather, which was displayed at that entertaining little annual exhibition of the “Mirlitons,” in the Place Vendome. With the exquisite modelling of its face (no one better than Mr. Sargent understands the beauty that resides in exceeding fineness) [Madame Allouard-Jouan], this head remains in my mind as a masterly rendering of the look of experience—such experience as may be attributed to a woman slightly faded and eminently sensitive and distinguished. Subject and treatment in this valuable piece are of an equal interest, and in the latter there is an element of positive sympathy which is not always in a high degree the sign of Mr. Sargent’s work.

Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, Oil on Canvas, 1881.

Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, Oil on Canvas, 1881.

What shall I say of the remarkable canvas which, on the occasion of the Salon of 1884, brought the critics about our artist’s ears, the already celebrated portrait of “Madame G.”[Gautreau or Madame X] It is an experiment of a highly original kind, and the painter has had in the case, in regard to what Mr. Ruskin would call the “rightness” of his attempt, the courage of his opinion. A beauty of beauties, according to Parisian fame, the lady stands upright beside a table on which her right arm rests, with her body almost fronting the spectator, and her face in complete profile. She wears an entirely sleeveless dress of black satin, against which her admirable left arm detaches itself; the line of her harmonious profile has a sharpness which Mr. Sargent does not always seek, and the crescent of Diana, an ornament in dianionds, rests on her exquisite head. This  work had not the good fortune to please the impression of many of the people who the public at large, and I even believe excited a kind of unreasoned scandal—an idea sufficiently amusing in the light of some of the manifestations of the plastic effort to which, each year, the Salon stands sponsor. The picture will always remain interesting to those who follow the artist’s career and note its different stages, even though they may not clearly see the light by which some portions of it are painted. It is a work to take or to leave, as the phrase is, and one in regard to which the question of liking or disliking comes to be settled. It is full of audacity of experiment and science of execution; it has singular beauty of line, and certainly in the body and arms we feel the pulse of life as strongly as the brush can give it.

Madame Allouard-Jouan, Oil on Canvas, 1882.

Madame Allouard-Jouan, Oil on Canvas, 1882.


Madame X, Oil on Canvas, 1884.

Madame X, Oil on Canvas, 1884.


Two of Mr. Sargent’s recent productions have been portraits of American ladies whom it must have been a delight to paint; I allude to those of Lady Playfair and Mrs. Henry White, both of which were seen in the Royal Academy of 1885, and the former subsequently in Boston, where it abides. These things possess, largely, the quality which makes Mr. Sargent so happy as a painter of women—a quality which can best be expressed by a reference to what it is not, to the curiously literal, prosaic, Philistine treatment to which, in the commonplace work that looks down at us from the walls of almost all exhibitions, delicate feminine elements have evidently so often been sacrificed. Mr. Sargent handles these elements with a special feeling for them, and they borrow something of nobleness from his brush. This nobleness is not absent from the two portraits I just mentioned, that of Lady Playfair and that of Mrs. White; it looks out at us from the erect head and frank animation of the one, and the silvery sheen and shimmer of white satin and white lace which form the setting of the slim tallness of the other. In the Royal Academy of 1886 Mr. Sargent was represented by three important canvases, all of which reminded the spectator of how much the brilliant effect he produces in an English exhibition arises from a certain appearance that he has of looking down from a height—a height of cleverness, a kind of giddiness of facility —at the artistic problems of the given case. Sometimes there is even a slight impertinence in it; that, doubtless, was the impression of the people who passed, staring, with an ejaculation, before the triumphant group of the three Misses V. These young ladies, seated in a row, with a room much foreshortened for a background, and treated with extraordinary freedom and vigor, excited in London a chorus of murmurs not dissimilar to that which it had been the fortune of the portrait exhibited in 1884 to elicit in Paris [Madame X], and had the further privilege of drawing forth some prodigies of purblind criticism. Works of this character are a genuine service; after the short-lived gibes of the profane have subsided, they are found to have cleared the air. They remind people that the faculty of taking a fresh, direct, independent, unborrowed impression is not altogether lost.

Edith, Lady Playfair, Oil on Canvas, 1884.

Edith, Lady Playfair, Oil on Canvas, 1884.


Mrs. Henry White, Oil on Canvas, 1883.

Mrs. Henry White, Oil on Canvas, 1883.


The Misses Vickers, Oil on Canvas, 1884.

The Misses Vickers, Oil on Canvas, 1884.


In this very rapid review I have accompanied Mr. Sargent to a very recent date. If I have said that observers encumbered with a nervous temperament may at any moment have been anxious about his future, I have it on my conscience to add that the day has not yet come for a complete extinction of this anxiety. Mr. Sargent is so young, in spite of the place allotted to him in these pages, so often a record of long careers and uncontested triumphs, that, in spite also of the admirable works he has already produced, his future is the most valuable thing he has to show. We may still ask ourselves what he will do With it, while we indulge the hope that he will see fit to give successors to the two pictures which I have spoken of emphatically as his best. There is no greater work of art than a great portrait—a truth to be constantly taken to heart by a painter holding in his hands the weapon that Mr. Sargent wields. The gift that he possesses he possesses completely—the immediate perception of the end and of means. Putting aside the question of the subject (and to a great portrait a common sitter will doubtless not always conduce), the highest result is achieved when to this element of quick perception a certain faculty of lingering reflection is added. I use this name for want of a better, and I mean the quality in the light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, elevates and humanizes the technical problem.

Henry James, 1887.

Note: For some inexplicable reason, images disappeared, possibly due to linking. Instead, I have inserted new images to replace the ones missing, this time as images on the website. If you notice missing images or broken links, please report them to me and I will do my best to replace them as soon as possible. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s