Sunday 11 March 2018

Indistinguishable from the Real Thing

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'.


  1. Hello. Good evening.

    One thing that both James and Sargent shared a common is, apart from their American citizenship (although Sargent was born in Florence, the only son of an American surgeon, Fitzwilliam Sargent), they both were allegedly hermetically-sealed gay men. It is no surprising that James admired Sargent's paintings. I do not know how much James knew about Sargent's private life or if he had seen especially the studies of men which Sargent portrayed purely for his own pleasure when he was travelling (Sargent's frank and casual depiction of gondoliers in watercolour makes the writing of John Addington Symonds somewhat tame).

    Brookner is superbly deadpan about Sargent's portraiture, which to a certain extent, I agree that it was a commercial enterprise for him. But his works in general do not press one's nerve like the works by Delacroix or Goya. Even the most impressive painting about the First World War called Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum), Sargent seems to be more interested in the relationship between men than their psychological which seems to be unquestioned. I do believe that a revelatory ecstasy can be found in his watercolour works - an intimate medium in which he found his utmost freedom.

  2. Many thanks for your comments. I remember seeing a Sargent exhibition recently, which included watercolours - but I cannot recall where. Somewhere in Mitteleuropa.


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