Henry James rated highly the work of John Singer Sargent, and towards the end of his life was depicted by him in the famous, appropriately magisterial painting (above) that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Some decades previously in an 1887 essay, republished in 1893 in the collection Picture and Text, James had written a substantial appreciation of the artist. Words such as 'splendid', 'brilliant' and 'masterpiece' abound. Of the 'superb' Dr Pozzi at Home (below), for example, James writes:
This gentleman stands up in his brilliant red dressing-gown with the prestance of a princely Vandyck.
Brian Sewell once complained of how a reference of Anita Brookner's to the 'threadbare' religious imagery of Caspar David Friedrich had forever ruined for him the work of the painter. Likewise we might look differently at Dr Pozzi after reading John Updike's assessment of the painting, quoted by Brookner in her review of his art essays collection Just Looking (Observer, 29 October 1989): Updike speaks of Sargent's 'shameless romantic flattery' of the 'bright-eyed subject', the 'cozy crimson aura of satanic drag'.
But it is probably Brookner's own devastating line on Sargent that comes closest to challenging my own appreciation of the artist. I'm pleased she liked his Henry James ('an authentic masterpiece') but more generally, she says, Sargent 'painted perhaps a handful of masterpieces and many more which he thought would be indistinguishable from the real thing'.