Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Duveneck Boys . Pt. 5

As previously stated from Nobert Hermann's book, Frank Duveneck: "In the year 1878 Duveneck started a school in Munich, which became so very popular that soon two classes had to be formed of about thirty each, one of Americans and English, the other of different nationalities; and when the desire to again see Italy took him back to Florence at the end of the following year (1879) fully half of his students went with him. Thus his school was transplanted to the banks of the Arno, and the members soon established themselves in the social as well as the artistic circles of Florence as the "Duveneck Boys."

Florence, 1880 by Frank Duveneck

A live picture of this earnest but exuberant group is given in W.D. Howell's story of Florentine Life, Indian Summer, where they are called the "Inglehart Boys." The breezy references to them are invested with a feeling of interest and friendliness. One of the characters introduces them thus:

"They were here all last winter and they just got back. It's rather exciting for Florence. She gave a score of young painters from an art school at Munich under the head of the singular and fascinating genius by whose name they became known. They had their own school for a while in Munich, and then they all came down into Italy in a body. They had their studio things with them, and they traveled third class, and had the greatest fun. They were a sensation in Florence. They went everywhere and were such favorites. I hope they are going to stay."

Such was the impression of them which Howells found in Florence when he went there the year after they had disbanded, and it should be remembered that the Florence of that day was a rallying place for the most fascinating people of Europe.

The  Duveneck Boys stayed together for about two years working in Florence in the winter and in Venice in the summer. Among them were
  • John W. Alexander
  • John Twachtman
  • Joseph DeCamp
  • Julius Rolshoven
  • Oliver Dennett Grover
  • Otto Bacher
  • Theodore Wendel
  • Louis Ritter
  • Ross Turner
  • Harper Pennington
  • Charles Forbes
  • George E. Hopkins
  • Julian Story
  • Charles E. Mills
  • Albert Reinhart
  • Charles H. Freeman
  • Henry Rosenberg
  • John O. Anderson
  • Charles Abel Corwin
  • Oliver Dennett Grover
  • Charles Frederic Ulrich
  • and more
Oliver Grover in speaking about his colleagues said that the advice of John Twachtman, of the Cincinnati contingent, one of the older ones, whose knowledge was wider, was appreciated next to that of the "Old Man," as they lovingly denominated Duveneck. Then he continued: "Joseph DeCamp was just plain Joe in those days, the breeziest, cheekiest, most warm-hearted Bohemian in Venice. Full of life, energy, and ambition, he worked unceasingly and gave and took many a hard knock.

Rolshoven, too, was endowed by nature with the artistic temperament, making it especially difficult for him to adapt himself to routine work.

Alexander, of course, was the born favorite and leader which he continued to be throughout his life. We always thought, had Alexander not chosen art as his vocation, he might have become a great diplomat. I remember him at the last annual meeting of the National Academy of Design at which he presided, and during the little while I could converse with him, he took occasion to speak of student days, and to voice feelingly his sense of the obligation he and all of us were under to Duveneck; incidentally, also, recalling Sargent's beautiful estimate of him.

The student days in Italy were all too short, but while they lasted they were more significant, probably, than a similar period in the lives of most students, because they were more intensified, more concentrated. The usual student experiences of work and play, elation and dejection, feast and famine, were ours, of course, but in addition to that, and owing to peculiar circumstances and conditions, the advantage of the intimate association and constant companionship we enjoyed not only with our leader but also with his acquaintances and fellow artists, men and women from many lands, was unique and perhaps quite as valuable as any actual school work. We lived in adjoining room, dined in the same restaurant, frequented the same cafes, worked and played together with an intimacy only possible to that age and such a community of interest."

The inspiration of this class was well epitomized by Duveneck's old professor Diez; it was "Work." It was his custom at the beginning of the year to make an address to the class, and in closing his talk he always said: "Now, I don't want any geniuses in this class; I don't care for pupils who claim an abundance of talent; but what I do want is a crowd of good workers." "This is the thought I have always tried to instill into my pupils," says Mr. Duveneck.

Text from Norbert Hermann's 1918 book, "Frank Duveneck."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Frank Duveneck - From Student to Teacher. Pt. 4

"Toward the end of the year 1873, the year in which the cholera broke out in Munich, Duveneck returned to America. He went at once to Chicago on a commission in connection with a church decoration. Not wishing to carry too much, he traveled with little luggage and no painting material, expecting to buy what he needed there. Upon arriving in Chicago he soon found to his surprise that such things as artist materials were unobtainable goods at that time, in a town that today can boast of having at least three thousand artists and art students. So he was obliged to remain idle until the material could be sent for. Upon his return to Cincinnati he was occupied there with several portrait orders, but an exhibition of a group of his portraits from Munich attracted little or no public attention, which is perhaps not surprising in the state of connoisseurship then existing.

Then came the year 1875, in which his one-man show in Boston proved more than a success, coming near a sensation. Besides receiving excellent criticisms, the whole collection was sold. Nobody was more amazed at this success than Duveneck himself. He has always attributed his favorable reception to William Morris Hunt's lectures on art, which together with Hunt's own work had cleared the way. Leibl, whose work in Germany at that time was very similar to Duveneck's was still absolutely misunderstood there by both press and public; in fact, he had been obliged to leave Munich for the country in 1872, largely because of the lack of funds. If Duveneck had been intent on business he would have accepted the very flattering inducements offered him to remain in Boston. However the call of the artist life in Munich was too strong to be resisted, so he declined them and returned to Munich the same year, where he worked until 1877.

In company with his friend William Merritt Chase, Duveneck then went to Venice, where the two experienced alternations of hardship and prosperity, most of the time managing to exist on practically nothing and enjoying themselves doing it. One year later, 1878, Duveneck was back in Munich. Chase returned to America and connected himself with the Art Students' League which had just been formed, teaching being then the only professional work which he found profitable.

In the year 1878 Duveneck started a school in Munich, which became so very popular that soon two classes had to be formed of about 30 each, one of Americans and English, the other of different nationalities; and when the desire to again see Italy took him back to Florence at the end of the following year (1879) fully half of his students went with him. Thus his school was transplanted to the banks of the Arno, and the members soon established themselves in the social as well as the artistic circles of Florence as the 'Duveneck Boys.'" More about this famous group in our next installment.

Text from Norbert Hermann's 1918 book, "Frank Duveneck."

Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, 1888
Cincinnati Art Museum


In the later years Duveneck came under the spell of the French painters. For a time he became vitally interested in their technique, so without much ado he set himself to study their style for several years, many of his enthusiasts lamenting this change. There is a large portrait of his wife in the Cincinnati Art Museum which reveals strikingly this departure; it is a gracefully distinguished work.

Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Francis Boott,
Frank Duveneck, and Ann Shenston, ca. 1886
from the Archives of American Art

Monday, April 9, 2012

Frank Duveneck, Student in Munich . Pt. 3

Frank Duveneck and Henry F. Farney in
Duveneck's Studio, 1874
Part Three of Norbert Herrmann's Book, Frank Duveneck

"It is interesting to linger over the condition of the art world of Munich
at the time young Duveneck stepped into it. It was a period of transitions. Within a generation the sound draughtsmanship, painstakingly built up on German soil by schooling received in France, had been followed by a wave of enthusiasm for color and now again had received a fresh impetus from Paris. At that time in the French capital, Delacroix and Ingres, the arch-romanticist and arch-classicist, still held their own. Besides these there were masters such as those glorifying the Napoleonic legend, Horace Vernet and Meissonier; the discoverers of the Orient for art, Decamps, Marilhat, Fromentin ; the genre painters of all kinds ; together with the elegant portrayers of feminine beauty, Cabanel, Baudry; the serious stylists, like Chasseriau, Flandrin, and Chenavard, and the excellent landscape painters. And finally there were the revolutionary realists with Courbet at their head. In a place apart stood Corot and Millet, whose art though closely associated with the Barbizon School is yet greater.

Munich, Germany

Something of all these was reflected in Munich in the sixties, and what is for us most interesting is the fact that two men there at least were following a course parallel to that of Courbet. These men were Wilhelm Leibl, whose influence in Munich was very strong even then, and Wilhelm von Dietz, the young instructor into whose hands Duveneck fell. Their art, resisting the artificialities of the older painters, Piloty and Makart, had been inspired by an intense study of nature and of the Dutch masters in the old Pinakothek, and had, only the year before Duveneck’s coming, received a fresh impulse through a great exhibition of French art in which Courbet was represented by a roomful of paintings. Nature, pure and simple, was what interested them, “Un coin de la nature vu a travers un temperament [A corner of nature seen through a temperament],” was the watchword coined for them by Emile Zola, the spokesman of the new movement.

Wilhelm Liebl, Three Women in Church 1882
It was among such varied influences that Duveneck had placed himself and, as was inevitable with his temperament, it was with the naturalists that he instantly aligned himself. Theirs was the spirit in which Duveneck approached his work.

Given immediately the close contact with a mood and method so absolutely suited to him, and remembering also the technical skill which he had already gained, especially through his free handling of paint in the work of church decoration in America, we can more easily understand the rapid progress of this newcomer in the stimulating art world of Munich, this blond, vigorous, and single-hearted young giant with the “ eye like a hawk,” fresh from a new world and conscious of his own power.

During his first year in Munich, Duveneck took most of the prizes of the Academy, from antique drawing to composition, a progress which was looked upon as nothing short of phenomenal. The admirable study of a Circassian in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts belongs to that year. At that time competitive compositions were made, the prize-winners were granted the use of a studio, the expenses for models to complete the prize competition usually being paid in addition. Duveneck won this prize in 1872.

The Whistling Boy, 1872

After establishing himself in the newly won studio he did not, and indeed soon proved that he did not have to, return to Dietz’s class, for to this time belongs that series of canvases of which we need recall only one, the Whistling Boy. In this picture are fully evident the qualities which startled and quickly attracted the other painters and students to him. Foremost among these is the expressive use of the paint itself, an astonishing virtuosity of brushwork closely related to Franz Hals, in which the daring and yet perfectly controlled hand defines planes, textures, and color with an
unhesitating brush loaded with paint. Even to the amateur this method makes an appeal, its chief merit being liveliness and force with rich, vibrant color.

Woman with Forget-Me-Nots (detail), 1876

Later, in the portrait of the Woman with Forget-Me-Nots, which is dated 1876, we feel the distinct ripening in pictorial insight. The fact that Duveneck at that time used to take his pictures to the Pinakothek and set them beside the old masters, the Dutch and Flemish being his favorite ones, makes us understand that as the Whistling Boy was Duveneck pure and simple, the Woman with Forget-Me-Nots is a development, through an inspiration that comes straight from the Netherlands, the hands being very suggestive of Rubens. Duveneck used a restricted palette in those days, composed chiefly of plain earth colors. A student who once asked some one who knew Duveneck in Munich, what kind of brushes and colors the latter then used, received the answer: “ Oh, generally somebody else’s.”

St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky is one location with some of Frank Duveneck's murals. This is an interactive, 360 degree site and well worth your time. Look in the Prayer Nave for some of his work:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Frank Duveneck by Norbert Herrmann . Pt. 2

Second in a Series: Duveneck's Entry Into the World of Art

"Before this audience, in 1875, came Frank Duveneck with his little one-man show of five canvases, a young fellow of twenty-seven  years with but a three years’ schooling in  Munich behind him. The canvases he showed  were “ The Woman with a Fan,” “ The Old  Schoolmaster,” “ Portrait of William Adams,”  “Portrait of Professor Loefftz,” and the “ Whistling Boy.” Here at last was a personality that spoke a definite, a beautifully and  powerfully definite language. Duveneck’s exhibition proved an immediate success. The pictures were acclaimed by Hunt and many others and by the whole press. 
"The Woman with a Fan" 1873

"Whistling Boy" 1872

The opening of a new era in American art was proclaimed. In 1877, the National Academy Exhibition in New York, including a group of canvases by the American painters from the Munich School, became a fresh landmark, and with the founding in the following year of “ The Society of American Artists “ and their subsequent exhibition at the Kurtz Gallery in New York in 1878, the new era in American Art was fairly launched. The younger men among the American painters had been brought into contact with a vital influence from outside and had been taught to respect their own reaction to it. As we have seen, this first impulse came by way of Munich; later Paris became the art school of the world. All this now is too well known to be dwelt upon.

"Portrait of William Adams" 1874

In speaking of Duveneck I would emphasize the powerful effect of his own work at the outset of our era. What he accomplished after that, while not less surely, was more quietly done. His class in Florence, then known as
the “Duveneck Boys,” his Italian paintings, his series of Venetian and Florentine etchings, his work as a sculptor, decorator, and as adviser has been of inestimable value, the story of his life affording a natural bridge by which to pass from our early period to the present day.

"Portrait of Professor Ludwig Loefftz" 1873

Frank Duveneck was born in 1848 in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Among his early recollections are a variety of interesting incidents of the Civil War. Naturally, living on the border-line of North and South, he felt the influence of the conflict through contact with the sick and wounded; also with negro refugees, half starved, helpless, and often not too hospitably received. At this time the Benedictine Friars were making altars for Catholic churches in Covington, and they employed Duveneck, still a mere boy, in his first artistic work. He painted, modeled, carved, decorated, finding a great deal of pleasure in the variety of his work.

His ability soon attracted the attention of a local painter named Schmidt, and later, at the age of eighteen, of a church decorator of German birth and training named Lamprecht, who coming just then to Cincinnati accepted him as an assistant. The varied work which followed proved of importance in Duveneck’s development. He learned his craft in the next few years, the rough craft of painting on large surfaces. He decorated churches in many different places, even as far away as Canada.

Realizing more and more his artistic ambition and being strongly advised by his fellow decorators to study abroad, he managed to get to Munich, which had at this time taken the place of Diisseldorf as the leading art school in Germany, and entered the Royal Academy. This was in 1870. After working for three months in the Antique Class, Duveneck was admitted, without any of the usual preparatory life drawings, to the painting class of Wilhelm Dietz, one of the radicals among the faculty who had become a professor at the Academy the same year that Duveneck entered. Among his classmates at this time were two who afterwards became famous; one of them being Ludwig Loefftz, later a professor and after that Director of the Munich Academy; and the other, Wilhelm Triibner, who ranks among the strongest modern German painters."

Notes on the Above Paintings
Woman with a Fan, 1873
"Like the romance of a long-forgotten day this lady emerges from 
the dark with her fan, her graceful feathery hat, her quaint ruche, silk 
dress, and black shawl. Asked once in reference to the superb paint- 
ing of her eyes, the depth of them, Duveneck said: " Yes, in those 
days I had eyes like a hawk and yet I painted two days on that one eye 
in the light." 
Whistling Boy, 1872
"The young Duveneck's complete realization of technique, clearness 
of vision, and powerful aim for what is vital in portraiture. Every- 
thing here fairly palpitates with life."
Portrait of William Adams, 1874 
"Note the stately placing of the figure on the canvas, the directness 
of expression with the brush, the subtle values in solid painting."  
Portrait of Professor Ludwig Loefftz, 1873 
"One of the artist's most beautiful works, a portrait all painters love 
for its dignity and completeness."

* Published by Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, copyright 1918

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Frank Duveneck by Norbert Herrmann . Pt. 1

The First in a Series: An Introduction

Portrait of Frank Duveneck by Joseph DeCamp
[Joseph DeCamp’s portrait of Duveneck strongly indicates his physical and mental make-up and harmonizes very well with Mrs. Pennell’s description (page 85). The expression of his eyes and hands in the canvas, suggesting a quietude that to the outsider might mean almost anything, yet to those that know him conveys the feeling of latent power and re- minds one that these blue eyes of his are used to look at things firmly  and to take from them a clear-cut summary of what is there. The portrait is a double tribute of DeCamp to his teacher. It was a work of love, time having been taken from commissions to complete it for a gift  to Cincinnati, where DeCamp was born and received his early art training. It also carries the sign of the latter’s training under Duveneck. A fine piece of characterization ; the person summed it up who said, “ Cut  the hand on the left out and show it to anybody that knows Duveneck  and he will tell you whose hand it is.”]
Excerpts from Norbert Herrmann's book, Frank Duveneck:

"After all’s said, Frank Duveneck is the “greatest talent of the brush of this generation.”  These are the words which John Singer Sargent spoke at a dinner given in London in the  early nineties, in a discussion of the merits of such eminent men as Carolus Duran and others. This judgment, deliberately spoken by a man whom artists and laymen alike have come to regard as the most technically brilliant of painters, would not now, any more than it did then, arouse contradiction in a company of artists. Yet to the general public it would come with a shock of surprise. This is in part because Duveneck’s work is not accessible to the general public. Another reason lies in the fact that the greatness of Duveneck’s art is best understood by the student of painting. His style, simple and direct,  is “sans phrase,” without technical tricks for effect, without persuasive story subjects, without even so much self-consciousness as is implied in the word “sentiment.” Of literary association there is none, of doctrine or dogma there is none.

The Rialto, Venice. Etching
 Memorial to Elizabeth Boott Duveneck
This is a copy of the original and is at the Met 

The world of this painter is not history, not imagination, not psychological analysis, not ethics; those fields which our public loves to explore. His compelling interest is in the normal aspect of man and nature, the subjects he chooses are everyday types ; he conceives them in an unpretentious spirit, but transmits them as endowed with quiet power. There is in his work a certain finality of grasp with a dignity, a calm, which to the connoisseur is akin to the serenity of the Greek, while to the multitude it may appear actually commonplace.

That a man of this type should later have been almost lost sight of, except by his intimate circle of artist friends, is not altogether surprising in this country and at a time like the present [this was written in 1918], when change swiftly follows change and is greeted with a clamor that distracts attention from earlier achievement.

The Old Professor, 1871

We owe it to the Duveneck Gallery at the Panama Pacific International Exposition that the full power of this personality has been once more thrown into full relief; and the action of the jury in awarding him a special medal, the highest in its power to bestow, is a timely reminder of the truly classic standard of his work and of its importance in the development of our national school.

To appreciate the effect of his painting, when it was first exhibited over forty years ago, we must remember the lack of national character in the American art of that day. The country was flooded with foreign paintings which inspired our painters to either the sentimental story picture of Dusseldorf lineage, or the dry reflection of other lifeless works.

Only here and there the flicker of independent thought appeared.
  • Inness, the father of the naturalistic movement in American landscape, who had just returned from Italy, was beginning to feel his way towards the splendor of his later work. 
  • Homer Martin was in more or less an experimental stage, 
  • and so was Alexander H. Wyant. 
  • John La Farge’s poetic genius was getting ready to express itself with full mastery for the first time in his mural decoration in Trinity Church, Boston (1876), 
  • and George Fuller’s noble art was yet hidden from the public, his intimate friends alone knowing that he painted in the intervals of his farm work at Deerfield, Massachusetts. 
  • William Morris Hunt was actually the only widely recognized artistic personage at the time. He had opened a studio in Boston in 1862. It proved successful, and his lectures on art, notably the art of his great inspiration Millet, also of Delacroix and Daumier, prepared in that city the most open-minded audience which existed in the country."

* Published by Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, copyright 1918


Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Enigma of John Sargent's Art by R.H. Ives Gammell

Sargent Painting Mrs. Fiske Warren
and Her Daughter Rachel (painting below)
Recently there was a question wondering what R.H. Ives Gammell thought about John Singer Sargent. One of the artists involved, Tom Dunlay (who studied with Gammell for 8 years), shared the answer by sending me The Enigma of John Sargent's Art, and I thought that you might like to read it. Mr. Gammell's hypothesis focuses on what it was that motivated JSS to create his finest work.

The Enigma of John Sargent's Art
by R.H. Ives Gammell
"In the course of his working life John Sargent devoted his energies to several kinds of painting. He painted portraits and figure pieces and mural decorations. He sketched all sorts of subjects in watercolors and in oils. He devoted some of his time to sculpture and not a little of it to designing textiles. He made portrait studies in charcoal. Though he took up these various activities at widely separated periods of his existence it is notable that, generally speaking, his earliest productions in each of these several fields remained superior to anything he subsequently produced in the same form.

Mrs. Fiske-Warren and Her
Daughter, Rachel
The work of no other eminent painter falls into a similar pattern. Pictures painted in the later years of an artist's career often show a decline due to physiological changes or to illness. Some painters, overwhelmed by the press of orders, have entrusted the execution of their pictures to assistants, with unfortunate results. Some have been spoiled by success. Others have prostituted their talents for the sake of gain. In Sargent's case none of these causes were operative.

Throughout his life the sincerity and humility of his attitude toward painting was recognized as one of his outstanding characteristics. He was never much interested in financial gain. Except when painting portraits, he chose his own subject matter and worked on his own time schedule. His faculties continued to be unimpaired until the day of his death and his physical strength declined far less than that of most men.

The baffling thing about Sargent as an artist is that we can discern no completely dominant motive behind his urge to paint.
  • His was not an art of self-expression, as was that of a Delacroix, of a Puvis de Chavannes, or a Burne-Jones, for instance. 
  • Nor was it in essence an art of conviction, dedicated to an ideal principle of interpretation and workmanship, as we recognize the art of Manet, of Degas, or of Whistler to have been. Sargent's approach was akin to that of these last-named men, but his fidelity to a particular concept of painting was less complete and uncompromising than theirs. 
It was precisely this absence of a deeply felt guiding principle which puzzled the serious artists of his time and kept them from giving their wholehearted admiration to the work of a man whose great talent and obvious sincerity they could not fail to recognize. * (see note below)

Boston Public Library Mural of Prophets
The first murals seemed to herald the development of something resembling an art of self-expression but the promise was not fulfilled by the later decorations. Only a few of Sargent's canvases, and all of those were painted early in his career, achieve the full dignity of great impressionist art. The majority of his pictures are apt to suggest a disinterested display of virtuosity rather than devotion to a high artistic ideal. If, after studying Sargent's mural decorations, we re-examine his output as a whole we may feel justified in hazarding an analysis of his elusive personality.

Everything we know of his working procedures indicates that Sargent's creative thinking took place in his subconscious mind to an extent very unusual in a painter who has proved himself capable of acquiring a high degree of professional skill. Subconscious mental activity does play an important role in all artistic creation, of course. It is, however, characteristic of the art of painting that, once an idea has been conceived and its general orientation has been established, translating that idea into effective pictorial terms requires very clear thinking and the judicious application of much acquired knowledge. In Sargent's case an unusually large part of these later operations seems to have been worked out in the earlier subconscious processes. To a bystander, and quite possibly to Sargent himself, his pictures may have appeared to take shape spontaneously in very nearly their final form. The gropings and the experimental studies whereby artists ordinarily arrive at their final results are relatively rare in Sargent's work. When he made a failure it was a poor picture from the start and it remained so. The tricks of patching and altering or of reconstructing an unsuccessful composition, which most painters consider an indispensable element of their craft, were apparently scarcely known to him. He seemed incapable of telling anyone how he had arrived at a given result. He presumably was only vaguely aware of it himself. The necessary brain work had been largely subconscious, or so rapid that the artist appeared to have been guided by instinct rather than by reasoning. A painter able to work in this fashion often seems to have no very clear idea of what he is trying to do because it has never been necessary for him to formulate his aims to himself.

When this kind of mental activity is basically responsible for the quality of a work of art, the artist can do comparatively little to control it. He can toil assiduously, of course, as Sargent certainly did. But his work will only reflect the full measure of his capacity when the faculties dormant in his subconscious are aroused to their maximum activity. At other times his painting will tend to be a routine version of what he produced in his "inspired" moments. An artist of this type probably has very little idea of how his mind functions. He simply goes on painting as best he can until some external stimulus awakens the forces of his psychic being to intense creative activity. Only at such times is he likely to produce his finest work.

If we feel justified in assuming that John Sargent's psychic mechanism conformed to some pattern of this kind we naturally will wish to ascertain what sort of stimulus served to set it in motion. 

In this connection a comment made to me by his niece comes to my mind. It seemed to her that her uncle was attracted to his chosen subject matter by virtue of the very difficulties which it presented to him as a painter. And here we perhaps have the key to the riddle. 

Apparently something in Sargent's inner nature responded in an unusual degree to the challenge of an exceptionally difficult technical problem. The challenge aroused no mere impulse to demonstrate his skill, as it might have in a lesser nature. In Sargent's case it seems on occasion rather to have engendered a series of reactions involving all the resources of his extraordinarily gifted personality, focusing their activity on the problem in hand and releasing emotional drives usually quiescent. Is it not reasonable to suppose that the subconscious of this reserved, inexpressive man, whose emotional life seems never to have found an outlet in any personal relationship, was dominated by an exceptionally powerful compensatory urge to assert his superiority? A peculiarity of his nature made it extremely difficult for him to express himself in speech or action and whenever possible he evaded occasions for so doing. In this he was aided by circumstances, for he received as his birthright many things which most men obtain only with effort: education, financial independence, and access to the most desirable society. His cosmopolitan existence released him from the duties of citizenship, and he never assumed the responsibilities of family life. His inability to deal with practical matters was proverbial. Serious illness and love passed him by. He even lacked the capacity for vicarious experience which ordinarily marks the creative artist.

Had he not painted. John Sargent would have passed for an amiable, cultivated though colorless man of the world. But he happened to be endowed with a prodigious talent for painting, coupled with an exceptional receptivity to art. literature, and music. All his other-wise unexpended energies were concentrated on the exercise of this dual gift.

No painter can have practiced his own art more constantly than did Sargent, and he found his relaxation chiefly in music, in reading, and in looking at works of art. His extraordinary talent, developed by ceaseless industry and tempered by continuous contact with the best that the human mind has produced, kept his work on a high artistic level at most times.

But Sargent attained his maximum potential, as it would seem, only when his subconscious will to power was aroused by an opportunity to assert his superiority through his art. The challenge of a fresh and exceptionally difficult artistic problem apparently induced a catalysis whereby all the latent forces of his immensely gifted personality and the accumulated store of his impressions merged into a single creative effort.

Let us glance briefly at the record.

  • The admirable portrait of Carolus-Duran (1877). executed by a young man of twenty-one under the critical eye of his master whose presence obviously put the boy on his mettle, is almost as fine in workmanship as anything he was later to paint. 
Portrait of Carolus-Duran

  • Two years afterwards came the spectacular El Jaleo (1881), a tour de force if ever a picture was, which, in spite of certain defects of drawing apparent in the secondary figures, might perhaps be taken as the most complete expression of his characteristic qualities that Sargent ever achieved.
El Jaleo
  • In the following year (1882) he painted the lovely Lady With A Rose and finished the Boit Children, a composition in which the difficulties always attending on the painting of children were compounded by problems of rendering light and atmosphere on a vast scale. Faced with this inordinately difficult subject which inevitably evoked comparisons with Velasquez' Las Meninas. Sargent created a masterpiece.
The Daughters of Edward D. Boit

  • It was followed by the portrait of Madame Gautreau (1884). The difficulties presented by this portrait were no less real, though they are less obvious. The subject was a conspicuous "beauty" of the time, very much in the public eye. and an uncooperative sitter. Hers was a singular type of beauty, emphasized by makeup, which even a slight exaggeration or understatement of form could turn into ugliness. As was his way, Sargent made things harder by electing to paint the lady in an attitude suggesting arrested motion. Once again he was triumphantly successful. 
Madame X
The four last-named pictures belong in the great line of impressionist painting, each one in its particular way on a level which Sargent never quite reached again. When he finished Madame Gautreau, he was twenty-eight years old.

Almost immediately an entirely new set of pictorial problems gave a fresh impetus to his creative activity. At this epoch painters were increasingly preoccupied by the problems of plein-air painting, the chief of which consisted in making accurate color notations of the transient effects created by ever-changing light and weather out of doors. Once more we find Sargent attacking a new problem in its most complex form, heaping Ossa upon Pelion to increase the obstacles he proposed to surmount. He chose the most illusive lighting conceivable, the brief moment of twilight between sundown and dusk. He created an additional complication by introducing the artificial light of candles seen through Japanese paper-lanterns. Again he took children for his models, dressing them in white frocks which assumed hues of exceptional delicacy in the gloaming. He surrounded these young models with flowers whose shapes and colors were scarcely less elusive than those of the children themselves. The result was Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886), a picture unique in the vast output of nineteenth-century plein-air painting. Sargent never again attempted anything of this kind.

Painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

The particular qualities which make these pictures great do not recur in Sargent's subsequent work in a comparable degree. The portraits painted during the next twelve years included some of his most brilliant achievements. Remarkable as they are in characterization and in handling, and occasionally as pictures, even the best of them somehow fall short of being classed with the world's greatest portraits. Whereas the best canvases of the eighties elicited comparisons with Velasquez and Hals, the portraits of the nineties were more often praised for being superior to Boldini's and Laszlo's or as perhaps rivaling those of Sir Thomas Lawrence.

The Duke of Portland
and his collies

We still find Sargent seeking difficulties as if they provided a dram for his genius. He sets the Duke of Portland to playing with his collies, paints Mrs. George Batten in the act of singing a song, groups Mrs. Carl Meyer and Mrs. Edgar L. Davis in complicated attitudes with their restless children. The results are amazing and exciting but in some ways less satisfying than many portraits by far less gifted men. After the turn of the century Sargent's portraits rarely reach the level established earlier by his own best work.

Between 1890 and 1904 mural decoration provided Sargent with another artistic adventure capable of drawing out all his latent capabilities. He responded to this fresh challenge in the two great lunettes at the Public Library, in the frieze of the prophets, and in the Astarte. The new problems brought into play previously untapped resources of his imagination and of his literary background, enabling Sargent to create masterpieces fully as remarkable in their way as his finest achievements in the field of impressionist painting. From then on it is disappointing to follow the progressive decline of his later mural work which reaches its lowest point in one of the Widener Library panels.

Boston Library Murals

About 1906 Sargent began exhibiting watercolors. and during the following decade his most brilliant work was done in that refractory medium. It is, in point of fact, the most difficult and unmanageable of all mediums for an artist bent on precise color-notation. Sargent rapidly made it his own, becoming almost immediately the most accomplished watercolorist which the world has yet seen. We find him successfully rendering subjects that would baffle the skill of almost any other painter even in the less difficult medium of oil: linen hung out to dry in flickering sunlight, white marble buildings silhouetted against white clouds, ladies resting on windswept hilltops, oxen and donkeys and alligators. Many observers have thought that the watercolors painted in the first decade of the century were his best, but he continued to turn them out until the end of his life with little apparent decline, perhaps because by their very nature they made few demands on his inner being. In this art everything depended on sheer dexterity and brilliance on "making the most of an emergency," as he himself defined painting a watercolor. With the phrase he consciously gave the best characterization of his entire approach to art.

He loved to make the most of an emergency and the greater the emergency,
the more he was usually able to make of it.

My interpretation may answer another question frequently raised in connection with John Sargent. Why did this brilliant, many faceted artist continue for so long to accept portrait orders? By the early nineties he had accumulated a considerable fortune and enjoyed international celebrity. The professional portrait painter's task is notoriously exhausting, frustrating, and thankless. Sargent himself complained of it to his friends. 1 had it from a man who in his youth had consulted Sargent as to whether he should take up painting, that the most sought after painter in the world adjured him to avoid portraiture. "It ruined me," said John Sargent. Why then did he go on for another decade accepting orders from all and sundry? Because, perhaps, each unknown, unsolicited sitter presented the fresh challenge which his nature required, an unexpected, unpredictable artistic problem demanding a solution.

This brief review of Sargent's career would seem to lend considerable support to the hypothesis I have outlined above. More than a hypothesis such an analysis could not pretend to be. Any attempt to describe the creative processes of a great artist is useful only insofar as it may help to understand and appreciate the artist's work. The art of John Sargent has puzzled both his admirers and those to whom it makes no appeal. Even the most appreciative have realized that it was strangely lacking in some fundamental quality of feeling. But this deficiency, which may perhaps be attributed, as I have suggested, to the emotional poverty of Sargent's initial creative impulse, should certainly not cause us to undervalue the intellectual power and technical brilliance of the resulting art or to doubt the sincerity of the artist.

Gustave Flaubert maintained that an artist, to achieve lasting fame, needs must either chisel a Parthenon or amass a pyramid. John Sargent stands with the pyramid builders. Perhaps no painter of comparable artistic stature has ever, unaided by assistants, been as prolific. The magnitude and variety of his output staggers the mind. The two outstanding characteristics of his art are vitality and a certain element of surprise. While the pervading sense of life captured at full swing still animates the best murals, canvases, water colors, and drawings, familiarity has perhaps dulled our appreciation of what were once startlingly novel presentations of familiar subjects which amazed and some-times shocked his public. To take the full measure of Sargent's originality one must restudy the art of his own time whose wilder manifestations look more and more like the eccentricities of minor artists hampered by their inadequate technical command. Sargent both knew his trade and kept to the main line of the western tradition, but his originality is manifested in everything he did. His work was uneven in quality, no doubt. His splendid contribution may be likened to that of a torrent which gushes headlong down the mountainside bearing, together with minerals of lesser value, nuggets of the purest gold." ~ R.H. Ives Gammell in Classical America

* Sir William Rothenstein, who was on friendly terms with the leading English and French artists of the period, wrote: "We all acknowledged his (Sargent's) immense accomplishment as a painter to be far beyond anything of which we were capable. But the disparity between his gifts and our own we were inclined to discount by thinking that we had qualities which somehow placed us among the essential artists while he, in spite of his great gifts, remained outside the charmed circle. I was used to hearing both Whistle and Degas speak disparagingly of Sargent's work. Even Helleu, Boldini and Gandar regarded him more as a brilliant executant than as an artist of high rank."

The Boston Library, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard University murals:

Excellent website of Sargent's work: