Nearly 60 years after his death, John Singer Sargent remains one of the more perplexing--indeed, exasperating--of American artists. He was a tremendously gifted painter who produced brilliant canvases, and he was a painful bore, a shallow entertainer, a producer of soppy high-style flatterings.
The exhibition of 60 drawings by Sargent at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, though in some respects a revelation, basically runs true to this form.
It shows a prolific, persuasive, self-confident draftsman who could get the feel of things just right--the shape and weight of a human head, the grip of hands on a rifle or in a wrestling match, the curve of a swan's neck. It also shows an artist of really irritating superficiality, one whose talent sometimes seems aimless or, worse, wedded to a dry, high-minded and preposterously genteel form of public lecturing.
To say this is of course to admit a lasting affection for Sargent at his best. There are pictures of his in Washington collections--the early "Oyster Gatherers of Cancale" (1878) in the Corcoran's collection or the late "Breakfast on the Loggia" (1910) at the Freer Gallery--that are simply breathtaking examples of their kind. Both paintings sing with light and the touch of a born painter, and "Breakfast," especially, sums up a privileged, private moment with inimitable sunny economy.
On the other hand there is the "Portrait of Mathilde Townsend" (1907) in the collection of the National Gallery, a skilled confection redeemed only by the possibility that the haughty superficiality of its subject was intentionally satirical.
The swings of the Sargent pendulum are equally dramatic in the Corcoran exhibition, although the emphasis of the show is somewhat different. Culled entirely from the gallery's own outstanding collection of Sargent's works on paper, it contains a revealing sample of his youthful works, sketchbook drawings made throughout his career, figure studies for murals in the Boston Public Library and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and a series of late studies of soldiers drawn near the end of and just after World War I.
Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, to a wealthy expatriate American family. He drew and drew and drew as a child and a young man: "It was a way to keep occupied as the family moved seasonally from city to city in Europe; it also provided a means of relating to the world, perhaps even of coping with it," writes Edward J. Nygren, Corcoran curator of collections, in his catalogue essay. Sargent's exercises were encouraged by his mother, herself an amateur artist, who insisted that he complete at least one of the drawings he began each day.
This regimen produced the rather dutiful landscape scenes he was making at 12 and 13. It also led to extremely rapid progress as he developed his extraordinary inborn talent. His precociousness was not unappreciated. A fellow American student in Paris in the mid-1870s wrote that Sargent's drawings reminded him of the Old Masters, so great was his skill. Jurors at the Ecole des Beaux Arts awarded him a silver medal when he was 21.
This early excellence, this virtuosity, never deserted Sargent. He used it well and he used it poorly, but my, how he could draw. His pencil or piece of charcoal could fly, could render outline or volume, light or shade, with equal speed and equal authority. Among the genuine delights of the show are early sketches, such as the fast, crisp drawing of "Men on a Spar" (tentatively dated 1876 by Nygren), and late sketches, such as the superb 1918 drawing of a motorcycle. His animal sketches are noteworthy, too, from swans swiftly drawn sometime before 1900 to horses rendered with equal economy in 1918.
Like Sargent the painter, Sargent the draftsman concentrated upon the human figure. One cannot help being impressed with the sureness--and above all the speed--of his anatomical studies, just as one cannot help being put off by their facility and, especially, the uses to which this skill was put. Sargent became famous for and was beleaguered by high-society portrait commissions--he often complained about it, but he turned them out. At least in part this explains why he was seduced by the very large commissions, starting in 1890, for those public buildings in Boston. They clearly represented a big chance to do something serious, significant, symbolic. And how tame, how damnably tame, were the results.
Sargent never lacked self-confidence. As a mature young artist in Paris, seeking the opportunity to paint a portrait of a great beauty of the time, Sargent wrote a friend, "You might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent." With such youthful braggadocio allied to demonstrable skill he won his case. The resulting picture, "Madame X," was a succe s de scandale in the Paris art season of 1885, attacked for the painter's realism and the subject's de'colletage. Ironically it established the pattern of Sargent's career as society painter.
Sargent seems today an artist who never really took the measure of his potential strengths as a realist in the tradition of the great Velazquez, whom he revered but did not truly understand. The last drawings in this show, the on-the-spot recordings of young men blown apart in an ugly, stupid, futile war, are the skillful renderings of an accomplished academic illustrator: beautifully done and moving, up to a point, but also idealized products of a calcified vision. Sargent was 62 when he made these drawings. He died a minor artist with a major talent six years later.
Nygren organized the exhibition in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, which will tour the show after it closes at the Corcoran Aug. 21.