What’s so great about John Singer Sargent?
I was an art history major in college, and spent most every afternoon in an auditorium looking at slides of the work of artists from the past. I remember, near the end of my third western art survey class, when my teacher mentioned that he was going to show the work of a few American artists… he showed a handful of slides by a few artists Maurice Prendergast , James McNiel Whistler, Mary Cassat, Edward hopper…and then one slide “the breakfast room” by John Singer Sargent.Sargent. There was a bit of a buzz in the classroom when Sargent’s painting was shown, because most of us had never heard of him. He wasn’t “in the book”. The teacher moved to the next artist, saying dismissively that Sargent was “an unusual case”.
Pressed to clarify, my teacher responded: “Sargent was really not an artist- he was extremely skilled painter, but essentially he was just a technician”.
This comment lit something of a fire under the 24 year old me. I was an art history student because I didn’t feel I fit in with the fine art department at my school, in part simply because I wanted to get some technical knowledge in representational art. I wanted to be a painter of some kind but at that time I was trying to learn about art of the past thinking that an appreciation of history would serve me well- but here was my respected history teacher telling me that something that I really thought was great was merely the work of a technician.
Eventually I became an illustrator, and I discovered that among illustrators, there were many like me who appreciated Sargent. As luck would have it, my time of entry into the illustration field corresponded with a renewed public interest in Sargent’s work. A number of books beautiful were published in the 80s and 90s of Sargent’s work- I bought every one I could get my hands on.
Was Sargent just a technician? His technical ability is indisputable. In the era of modernisim, technical skill could selectively be seen as a liability. This, in tandem with a reappraisal of his portrait work as propaganda of the gilded age, led to Sargent falling out of favor of historians.
Sargent was the kind of artist that many illustrators aspire to be- an artist doing commissioned work for demanding, high paying clients, and producing results that were incredibly beautiful. But if you really look at this work you can see that there was a lot of groundbreaking design and risk-taking even in his most commercial portrait work. And those portraits were of course not the only thing he ever did.
Once he tired of painting society portraits, he continued to work for primarily for himself- it is here that his really incredible work resided. I was fortunate to visit the Sargent retrospective at the met a few years ago with my friend illustrator Victor Juhasz. It was a day ill never ever forget, being able to be around so many iconic works. The photos in this article are by me just being a fan.
Don’t tell me Sargent is just a technician- he transended the commercial nature of his early work and became, as far asI am concerned, one of the greatest realist painters in the history of art. Sure, he was a great technical painter. But he was much more than that.