John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolorsby Richard Ormond

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  • John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors by Richard OrmondReview by: Hedley H. RhysThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 105-106Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 10/06/2014 09:22

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    As it turns out, Jongkind was not entirely free in this matter, for his letters of the early 1850's prove the complicity of the art market. In order to survive, he had to paint moonlit scenes:

    "Il n y a pas dans le moment-ci un peintre du claire delune 'a Paris, je tacherai de me faire adoptd cela commence pas a moi, par le public lui meme, je dis il n y a pas du concurrence pour arrive plu vite .. ." (page 12).

    And he also found a market for typical Dutch scenes, although his great love was the French countryside. One of the chief contri- butions of these letters, in fact, is the lesson they offer in the work-

    ing of the art market. Jongkind's constant concern is the disposi- tion of his works, and as a by-product we have innumerable in-

    sights into the relation of artist and dealer, artist and client, and dealer and client. We can be grateful for this, because the letters are not otherwise rich as witness accounts. Jongkind knew a great many artists but he seldom commented on their work (the refer- ence to Troyon already cited is an exception).

    Taken by themselves, Jongkind's letters are only of modest interest and cannot compare with those of Theodore Rousseau, Millet or Daubigny. But to their plain stems Mrs. Hefting has attached a whole series of blossoms in her extensive annotations. Individual buildings and whole sites have been identified, dated, and their alterations documented. Each artist, dealer and client mentioned in the letters calls forth a summary biography. The deal- er Firmin Martin, for example, so important for Millet, Rousseau, Cals and others, is given a five-hundred-word biography (pages 32f.), complete to the successive addresses he established for his shop. Dozens upon dozens of such rewarding glosses form an in- valuable body of information. It should not be thought that they are dry flowers lacking color. Mrs. Hefting is a perceptive judge and she interpolates comments which time and again seem just right. E. C. Lambinet is described as a painter of landscapes "fins et sensibles, qui, malgrd leur modestie et leur peu d'eclat n'ont sans doute pas manque d'exercer une certaine influence" (page 43). The writer and photographer Etienne Carjat is compar- ed to Nadar to his disadvantage: "Il a survecu

    " son epoque par son talent de photographe. Quant a lui, il se croyait plut6t poete, critique d'art et dessinateur. II avait comme trait commun avec Nadar l'universalite, mais non la spiritualite ni la verve" (page 137).

    As for the vessel which contains these riches, it proves to be a bit unwieldy. The annotations follow each letter, requiring the reader to use the index (fortunately an excellent one) to pursue a given subject. Both letters and annotations have two sets of foot- notes, one at the rear and the other on each page. The latter are signalled by black stars in cumulative numbers, so that on page 5 the seven notes shoot out a total of fifty-six of these prickly little florets. A perfectly unnecessary concordance takes up ten pages of front matter, although the chronology which follows the letters is a model of economy.

    The great value of Mrs. Hefting's work is so apparent that the grateful reader will hope that she plans to undertake a straight- forward monograph on Jongkind. Her fine introduction and the many notes prove that she is alert to such central issues as plein- air painting, naturalism, and sketch versus finished picture. Her information on other artists, on dealers and on clients, if re- arranged in biographical form, would make a very fine study of artistic life in Paris. Meanwhile, we can allow ourselves the endless pleasures of rearranging her present offerings in our own vases.


    Tale University

    RICHARD ORMOND, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, drawings, watercolors, London and New York, Phaidon Press and

    Harper & Row, 1970. Pp. 264; 32 color pls., 120 black- and-white pls., 52 other ills. $20.00

    In the idiom of the 1970's we might describe Sargent as an Estab- lishment painter alienated from the avant-garde. In his own day he was to Pissarro ". . . but an adroit performer"; to Whistler he was ". . . neither better nor worse than the usual Academician," and to Mary Cassatt he was just "a buffoon." William Rothenstein was less severe, yet even for him, Sargent, ". . . despite his great gifts, remained outside the charmed circle." Should there be a movement away from the idea of the superior function of the

    avant-garde and a distinction made between the qualities of

    painting and the values of innovation, then the level of Sargent's achievement will have to be reassessed. Charles Merrill Mount, in his 1955 biography of Sargent, passionately attempted to do just that. The book is now in its third edition. Overtly at least, the latest monograph on Sargent, by his grandnephew Richard Or- mond, has no such polemical intention. It presents straightfor- wardly the circumstances of Sargent's life and career, the stages of his growth as an artist, and it includes his activities in branches of painting and decoration other than portraiture. Mr. Ormond's

    quiet tone and sensitive discussion of the pictures, plus the good quality of the plates, invite a fresh and unprejudiced examina- tion of Sargent's work. The assessment or reassessment can be the reader's own; the author is not insistent. There are one or two surprises in both the text and the plates.

    Though the text is relatively short, nothing of importance has been omitted. Sargent's training under Carolus-Duran, his en- thusiasm for VelAzquez and things Spanish, and his equally familiar successes and failures in Paris between 1874 and 1884 are all fully treated. In addition, his heretofore somewhat neglected awareness of Manet and Monet receives its merited attention. The definition of essential differences between Sargent's and the Impressionists' vision, especially Monet's, is succinct and suggestive. It is a theme that could be developed. To the portraits of the nineties, Mr. Ormond brings a new appreciation. He looks at them not as social documents or "reports about other things" but as works of art, as examples of Sargent's mature ability as a painter. Seen in this way the virtuosity of their execution becomes an asset, an ex- pression of the possibilities of paint. The concern of more recent American painters with pure painting comes unavoidably to mind. Detailed information about "other things," about the sitters, their national and social ambience, when, where, and why they sat and so on is given in the excellent notes to the plates.

    A special chapter is devoted to Sargent "off duty," to his work as a landscapist and sketcher. It includes a short exploration of his use of paint as a means of expression that is almost independent of the subject depicted, and mention is made here of other critics who have shown that "the American Abstract Expressionists are, in one sense, closer to Sargent than to Picasso." However, the author does not insist on the point nor does he, as perhaps an American writer might have, attempt to see in this painterly ex- pression a continuation of an earlier American sensibility by pos- sibly invoking Washington Allston's appreciation of Veronese; "He who can thus, as it were, embody an abstraction is no mere pander to the senses." Be all that as it may, Mr. Ormond is, throughout the book, consistently accurate in describing Sargent's different modes of painting and keenly responsive to the effect each produces. And in this section his skill and sensitivity serve him well. The chapter also brings to needed notice the works that are free of the social snobbery which is such a hindrance to an appre- ciation of so many of Sargent's portraits.

    The treatment of Sargent's work at the front in World War I is factual and tactfully brief. Even so, the inadequacies of his talent and sensibility to the task assigned him become clear, deficiencies underscored by the pictures reproduced. Sargent appears as though insulated from the experiences of ordinary men. During much of that war he was occupied with his Boston murals. These are so extraneous to all else he did that Mr. Ormond has confined the essential information about them to an appendix. Perhaps

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    also for other reasons, that, for the time being, is where they belong. Though Sargent is spoken of as an American painter, it was late

    Victorian and Edwardian England that set the stage for his brilliant performance as a portraitist. His relationship to British

    painting of the time, to its traditions, its politics, and its patrons, rightly receives considerable attention in this monograph. Every- thing is touched upon: who sat for him, his influence on many now forgotten younger portraitists, his election to the Royal Academy, his eventual antipathy to changes taking place in con-

    temporary art and much more. When he arrived in England in the

    eighties, he himself was considered radical and his sitters thought to be adventurous; by the turn of the century he was portraitist to the oldest and the highest aristocracy of the land. The Sitwell and the Marlborough commissions, both late, are fully des- cribed and plates of the paintings provided. Since The Sitwell

    Family was planned as a pendant to Copley's Sitwell Children, the absence of a picture of the Copley painting is a bit frustrating. A like need is felt for a reproduction of the Reynolds group port- rait to which The Marlborough Family is a pendant. But no matter who the sitters or at what point in his career they sat for him, Sargent's uncanny ability to express in formal terms the subtlest discriminations of social status, of ethnic or of national character is evidenced in both text and plates. The difference between French and English subjects is immediate. The special quality of his portraits of Americans, especially of American women, is also remarked. The plates of them imply a good understanding on Sar-

    gent's part of the American tradition in portraiture. How well did he know it ? Did he draw upon it ? The text scants these questions - no mention is made of his wish to meet Eakins when in Phila-

    delphia; it simply states that these portraits were ". . . honest, instinct with life and personality as few American portraits had been since Copley." In fairness, it must be added that broaching the subject of what, if anything, is American in the art of this al- most permanent expatriate was not the purpose of the monograph. But the question keeps coming up, and it is a challenge.

    This is a short, richly informative book. For those who do not know Sargent and his works, it is the best possible introduction; for those who do, it is useful as an accurate reference and as a reminder of the variety of his production, which was not all

    "swagger portraits." Mr. Ormond has made good use of established sources. In addition he has, as a relative of Sargent's, been able to draw on family records and has also had access to David McKib- bin's as yet unpublished catalogue raisonnd. His research has been thorough. He uses the opinions of critics contemporary with

    Sargent effectively but rarely calls upon later critics. His own

    opinions are gracefully and even persuasively stated. It all reads

    easily. The plates are well chosen and consistently good, and the

    supplementary illustrations, except for previously mentioned

    omissions, are pertinent and helpful. The placing of these in rela- tion to the text is, for the careful reader, sometimes inconvenient: short of a separate volume for the plates, there seems to be no perfect solution to this problem. All in all, this is a handsome book. The high standard set by the long list of Phaidon books has been upheld. Mr. Ormond is to be congratulated. It occurs to me too, that he should be thanked for reminding us, though inci- dentally, of how spiritually distant art's recent past has become. Sargent is from a remote age.


    Swarthmore College

    LUIGI GRASSI, Teorici e storia della critica d'arte, I, Dall' Antichitad a tutto il Cinquecento con due saggi introduttivi, Rome, Multigrafica Editrice, 1970. Pp. 302; 133 ills. L.8,500

    Professor Grassi's book is the first of two projected volumes and it runs from Greek antiquity up to the end of the sixteenth century. There is some disproportion between the claims made for the book on the dust-jacket - one will not blame the author for these -

    and the more limited ambitions stated by Professor Grassi himself inside the covers, and for this reason one had better make it

    quite clear what the book does contain. It consists basically of two distinct parts. First (pages 13-55), Professor Grassi has printed two earlier papers of his in which he discusses the problems and

    scope of art history and art criticism, particularly in the light of books and articles on aesthetics and criticism recently published in Italian. In the first paper (1968) he touches on the relevance to art history of a number of current approaches, including those

    through the psychology of perception, phenomenology and struc- turalism: in these and various others Professor Grassi believes there is an underlying similarity of thought with more traditional

    approaches, though he states this rather generally and does not

    argue it in detail. His style of discourse and many of his premises are straightforwardly neo-Crocian. In the second paper (1961), a shorter one of ten pages, he points to the role of theory in criti- cism. Then, in the second part of the book (pages 59-238)...


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