The soul thief: John Singer Sargent and the Burlington Magazine

This year is the 90th anniversary of John Singer Sargent’s death and the National Portrait Gallery of London commemorated him with an exhibition, Sargent. Portraits of artists and friends, curated by Richard Ormond. This show is a journey across Sargent’s personal and artistic life, through which the intense rapport between the painter and his sitters is relived. The show will travel in June to the Met in New York, where one of Sargent’s Isabella Steward Gardner portraits will also be exhibited.

Sargent experienced great public success since he was young, and his work was often compared to the grand Old Masters and British portraitist such as Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez, Reynolds and Gainsborough.[1] Sargent has been the subject of renewed critical interest since the second half of the twentieth century, when a large retrospective exhibiton opened at the Whitney Museum in New York and at the Chicago Art Institute (1986). When Andy Warhol visited this exhibition, he commented that Sargent ‘made everybody look glamourous, taller, thinner. But they all have mood, every one of them has a different mood’. Sargent’s critical reception, however, had wide fluctuations: his meteoric rise to fame, in fact, was contested by harsh critical voices and this blog reconstructs his alternating fortune and finds in the cultural circles around The Burlington Magazine his most powerful detractors.

Born in Florence, Sargent moved to Paris in 1874 to study with Carolus Duran. During these years he was at the centre of networks of artists (Rodin and Manet), writers, and collectors, who helped him to transition from the French market to the English and American one. It was during his stay in Paris that Sargent adopted portraiture, often with great success. Following the fiasco at the 1884 Salon, where he presented the scandalous Madame X, Sargent moved to London.

In London, Sargent was the connection between Rodin, who described his friend as ‘the Van Dyck of our time’, and the ‘new’ London art market. There Sargent met the most influential people of his artistic and personal life. For instance, the writer Henry James, who introduced the artist to the London and American high society. Thanks to James’s connections in 1881, Sargent exhibited the portrait Dr. Pozzi at home at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition, and by 1890 he was elected as a Royal Academy Associate. In 1887, Henry James wrote a long article for Harpers’ Magazine describing Sargent’s artistic development and works, assuring that Sargent’s real luck ‘it has been his fortune to paint more women than men; therefore he has had but a limited opportunity to reproduce that generalized grand air with which his view of certain figures of gentlemen invests the model.’[2] Via Henry James, Sargent met the Bostonian collector Isabella Steward Gardner in 1888 who was to have such a significant influence in Sargent’s life and work.

John Singer Sargent, Henry James. 1913, National Portrait Gallery, LondonSargent’s work was mentioned in derogatory terms in The Burlington Magazine.[3] Sargent’s technical ability and versatile style is quoted against him: Sargent is described as a master of ‘swordplay’, where ‘the sword is flashed and flourished as if the swordsman were bent more on astonishing the spectator than on driving his point home’.[4] In 1925, the year of Sargent’s death, The Burlington Magazine published a short obituary penned by Robert Rattray Tatlock in which Sargent’s technical facility is believed to hide a lack of innovation: ‘His early work bore witness to his amazing technical dexterity’ but ‘he was not an innovator or ever seemed to threaten to become one, and so he remained in the public eye pre-eminently safe and sane’. The most powerful, and harsher, critic of Sargent’s work was Roger Fry, who had commented negatively on Sargent’s work as early as 1900. This was years before the change of Fry’s critical allegiance which de facto aligned Fry with European modernism (around 1910). For Fry Sargent was assimilable to British society portraitists, artists who worked exclusively to appease their public while failing to recognise a higher purpose in their art, and thus created works that merely satisfied their immediate contemporaries instead of serving ‘posterity and mankind at large.’ In the Nation in 1926 Fry commented: ‘why have we no word for a reporter in painted images? How willingly would I have greeted Sargent as a past master in that craft!’, failing that description, however, Fry concluded that Sargent was ‘striking and undistinguished as an illustrator and non-existent as an artist’[5]

Interestingly, the same accusations of facility and emptiness are levied against Sargent today. As Martin Gayford recently wrote in the Spectator: ‘I cannot subdue the feeling that there is something unsatisfactory about Sargent. Perhaps he was a case of talent that flowed too easily. […] Whatever the cause, there is a lingering sense of disappointment about Sargent’s career […]. The brilliance was still there, but with too much gloss and not enough truth. He was so good he should have been better.’[6]

BP and GDR, May 2015

Illustration: John Singer Sargent, Henry James, 1913, London, National Portrait Gallery.


[1] Later to Isabella Stewart Gardner from Henry James. April 3, 1898, regarding the portrait of Marguerite Hyde (Daisy), today hung on Kenwood House (English Heritage) as part of the Suffolk Collection.

[2] Henry James. “John S. Sargent” Harper’s Magazine. Oct. 1887.

[3] Claude Phillips. “Dramatic portraiture”. The Burlington Magazine. Feb. 1906

[4] AP, The Failure of Our Water-Colour Tradition, The Burlington Magazine. May 1905, p. 112.

[5] The Nation, 23 January 1926, quoted in Bell, Fry, p. 132

[6] Martin Gayford, Exhibitions, The Spectator, 21 February 2015

3 thoughts on “The soul thief: John Singer Sargent and the Burlington Magazine

  1. These lingering criticisms show, in the best possible manner, how pervasive ethical concerns regarding art truly are (demands about seriousness, depth, truth etc.). However, none of this has anything to do with the construction of the object as such – perhaps Sargent’s only offense was really that his painting drew too much attention on the painted canvas, like so many before him that were criticized on similar grounds.

  2. I purposefully left the question unresolved! I could have gone pro or against Sargent but this time leaving the question open-ended seemed an interesting way of closing, rather than just merely sitting on the fence!

  3. I wonder if Burlington had Sargent’s portrait of his fencing master, Arsène Vigeant, in mind when describing him as a ‘master of swordplay’? (see Burlington Oct. 2014)

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