A Fresh Way to Appreciate the Phenomenon of John Singer Sargent’s Paintings

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent

Considering how many books and articles have been devoted to John Singer Sargent’s life and paintings, there is surprisingly little written that attempts to explain the phenomenon of his paintings. Even artists who emulate his style generally see them as the works of a transcendent mind that can never be understood through analyses. For many of the students and followers of Sargent, the spontaneity within his paintings is the essence of that transcendent mind. Consequently, the principle they tend to apply when viewing his work, or in making their own paintings, is “Don’t think too much.”

He did fill his paintings with spontaneous passages, as a jazz musician might, and after a brief time early in his career it seems that he went directly into his paintings without any significant compositional studies. Nevertheless, there is a conscious mind behind those flashes of genius, judging, selecting and organizing them into a cohesive whole. Sargent was said to have frequently scraped down, rubbed out and reworked various areas to get the effects that he wanted. The combination of letting things fall as they may and of reconsidering or editing from those moments is what made his paintings great works of art.

Sargent had a special advantage over other artists in that he could think at an extraordinary speed. That may seem like an insignificant detail, but in a direct painting style an artist has to make important decisions within the limited time he has before the paint dries, just as a musician’s mind has to work at the speed or tempo of the piece he is performing. Sargent had a quick and agile mind, and one that could think throughout that drying time toward a final and complete orchestration.

Portrait of Joseph Pulitzer by John Singer Sargent

To have a basic understanding of Sargent’s creative process, a person needs to consider what Sargent was not. He was not an artist consumed with interest in the subject’s character, so he was not distracted by it. While he was painting a portrait of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, he actually stated that he was not interested in character, saying, “Sometimes I get a good likeness—so much the better for both of us. Sometimes I don’t—so much the worse for the subject, but I make no attempt to represent anything but what the outward appearance of a man or woman indicates.”

He was more interested in the ballet of the figures moving about in the illusionary worlds he created on canvases and in the visual music of his compositions and brushwork. Essentially, he was consumed by the creation of beauty, and he seems to have had no need to “say” anything beyond that. His clients must have sensed this fact even if they didn’t understand it. In their day, his portraits were recognized as elegantly modern images in which people wanted their likenesses placed, even if that likeness was vague.

I believe the best way to understand Sargent’s work is to see in his paintings parallels to music. Music is a timeline form of art (art that moves in time) in which the lyrics, if they are used, are carried by the rhythm, melody and spacing of time within it. Painting is a static form of art, but we view it in a timeline manner, according to where and in what priority our attention lands in different parts of the composition and pictorial space. In a good painting, our attention is guided by principles very much like the rhythm, melody and spacing in music. All representational or realistic paintings, if they are successful, are carried by these elements, described generally as design or composition, or as an underlying abstraction.

The realism in these paintings can be equated to the lyrics in a song in that both refer to ideas (often described as programmatic in music). In representational art, as in music with lyrics, there is always a balance between a reference to ideas, or meaning, and the composition or design that carries that meaning. Generally, however, one side of the equation is more dominant than the other.

In Sargent’s paintings, the realism is of an extremely high order, but the design (the shapes, texture, color, brushwork, form, and movement) predominates in the way it carries that realism. Music lovers talk about being swept away by a particular piece of music and that is very much like what happens to those of us who love Sargent’s work. The abstract side of his paintings moves us with the conspicuous excitement and grace of his execution and the unique patterns of his compositions.

But even with that predominance of abstract design, the realism is strengthened by it because it contributes largely to the feeling of life and liveliness of the figures. Sargent’s paintings are grounded in traditional realism, as dancers in a performance are grounded by the stage beneath them, reminding us that they are real people. Sargent’s paintings are firmly planted in the here and now, but the beauty of his performance, as with ballet or opera, is what moves us and elevates us out of the stresses of our daily routines.

So I was not surprised when I learned that Sargent was an accomplished musician as well as a painter. Percy Grainger and Gabriel Fauré, famous musicians and close friends of Sargent’s, said of him that his musical ability was as great as his painting skills. It is apparent, therefore, that either music had a profound influence on the way he painted and the way he thought about painting, or, music and painting were just two aspects of the same thing for him. I’m inclined to believe the latter.

My friend, the French-horn player Lisa Taylor, wrote to me recently describing Sargent’s paintings as having, “a richness, joy, lyricism and mastery of rapturous melodic line and harmony.” She compared them to compositions by the musical impressionists Fauré, Ravel, and Debussy and to the works of Shubert, Dvorak, Mozart, and Brahms, whose compositions she described as “sound tapestries of different textures and colors, created by composers who brought out the best of each instrument for which they composed.”

Others have compared his work to jazz greats. Gerald Lazare, an artist friend and honorary member of the Duke Ellington Society of Canada, sees parallels between Sargent’s paintings and Ellington’s compositions, which combine the improvisations of jazz with formal composition. He compares the dramatic range of extreme lights to extreme darks in Sargent’s paintings with Ellington’s way of using a range of sounds from the highest clarinet to the lowest baritone sax.

Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife by John Singer Sargent

People often compare Sargent to the artists Velasquez and Franz Hals because of the looseness and dash of their brushstrokes. The brushwork of these great artists, each in its way, is powerful and timeless in its expression, but neither artist’s work has the flowing musical quality that exists in Sargent’s paintings. I associate him more with painters of the late Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy, especially those in Venice, which was once known as the Republic of Music. The paintings of Veronese, for example, are composed as if they are rolling with elegant song and celebration; Guardi’s brushstrokes are like clear, decisive rings from brass and reed; Tiepolo’s paintings are grand opera at its best; and Tintoretto’s have the energy and intensity of some of the symphonic music of the Romantic period.

To see the musicality in Sargent’s paintings is to expand our experience of them and to understand ourselves better in the course of doing that. The first reaction most of us have to his work is awe. We feel a vicarious thrill in the power and assuredness of his athletic prowess as an artist. Then the music reaches us, independent of the performer and composer, and a door to pure exaltation opens to us. We become aware of that combination of classical order and pure, innocent joy. Many years ago, I saw on the back of an LP album cover a description of the Venetian composer Vivaldi that read, “Entirely serious in his joyfulness.” Could there possibly be a better tribute to the art and creative life of John Singer Sargent?

By comparison with the Eakins portrait of Dr. Gross, the realism that Beal proudly extols holds little interest

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, Thomas Eakins

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, Thomas Eakins

In the April 1999 issue of American Artist magazine the contemporary realist painter Jack Beal is quoted as saying about his commissioned portraits, “I tell my clients that when my portrait of them is finished, they will hate it—and their spouse will hate it even more. I capture more truth in a painting than anyone wants me to reveal, and that’s not necessarily flattering.”  He also implies that his portraits’ power to disturb his clients qualifies them as museum-worthy, saying, “I warn my clients they will likely put the finished painting out of view for a while and eventually give it to a museum.”

Walt Whitman made a comparable statement about the nineteenth century artist Thomas Eakins when he said, “I never knew but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they thought ought to [be] rather than what is.” Eakins was like Beal in that he insisted on faithfulness to the truths before him, but beyond that the two artists are very different.

Although Eakins was ambitious to immortalize himself through his work, and was probably more concerned about his personal aesthetics than he was about people, his portraits never put his subjects beneath him.  In fact his paintings often mirror and sometimes parallel the qualities of the people he painted.  His portrait of the famous pioneering surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross is a remarkable example of that because it is an obvious, and I think successful, effort to put himself on equal footing with Gross—without diminishing Gross’s stature in any way.

Good composition in a portrait generally indicates an artist’s respect for his subject, or at least of what that person represents, because the solidity and grace it imparts suggests that comparable traits exist within the subject’s character.  In light of that fact, the contrast between these two artists becomes even more apparent.

In the article mentioned above, “Jack Beal’s Portraits of Life,” the author Stephen Doherty emphasizes Beal’s interest in composition: “Beal frequently lectures and writes about composition, constantly urging artists to create the illusion of greater and livelier space within their pictures.” Beal’s early paintings sometimes had a rhythmic flow within the figures themselves but his later commissioned works, even within the figures, have none of that movement.  Rather than creating the “lively space” he describes in his lectures, his pictures are often static, the shapes are sometimes repetitive and the compositions in general lack a prioritizing of the order in which the viewer’s attention is held. That is tantamount to not composing at all.  Compare his composition in the portrait of President Olin C. Robison that hangs in the Middlebury College in Vermont with Eakins’s painting of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, painted for the Gross Clinic and now hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[NOTE: To see Beal’s portrait, go to www.jackbeal.net/89_robison.html ; copyright prohibits us from making the image available here]

Eakins’s painting of Dr. Gross is built like a grand temple, a tribute to science and to the virtues of thought and accomplishment. It is architecturally solid and within that structure is a carefully choreographed scene.  The combination of shapes and the lighting and shadows provide the same order of succession that dialogue and movement create in a masterful stage production.  Eakins does not restrict our movements.  Instead he gives us logical and inviting options.  He allows us to travel throughout his illusionary space along any of many pathways, each one prescribed to give us the fullness of his experience of the scene.  He imagines that each of us would enter the pictorial space from a different place with different initial interests and gives us the added option of changing course as our pathway crosses others, but he brings us all to the same ultimate conclusion or completion once we have absorbed the entire picture.  None of the routes we might choose are boring.  There is no redundancy in shapes or in emotional content.  Each figure, including the patient and the students in the gallery, is playing a unique role with a different, very expressive gesture that is an integral part of the whole.

The scene Eakins created, and still creates, has stillness yet moves and has power.  We feel a momentary hesitation between events, as if Dr. Gross has deliberately paused in his address to punctuate his last statement or to gain the audience’s full attention before his next point.  Even the mood is a careful balance of various elements in the room.

Every small section in this pictorial space is accounted for.  There is nothing extraneous. Nothing is overstated or understated.  Eakins’s creation is a compositional masterpiece.  It is an ideal that even he could not always live up to but which points the way for any person who aspires to create works that have lasting quality.  It also should be instructive to those who, like Beal, have elitist notions about their compositional acumen when, in fact, they have taken a rather lackluster approach from start to finish.

By comparison with Eakins portrait of Dr. Gross, the realism that Beal proudly extols holds little interest for most of us, and his unwillingness to go beyond that, to add to that reality in any enriching way, makes his efforts seem empty, banal and pointless.