Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Memoriam: John Singer Sargent

Proof of John Singer Sargent's genius is not in the pudding, but rather in the impasto; any further proof one might require should come from the envy of his success shown by his contemporaries and the critical drubbing his work received while he was alive. Indeed, the work which was Sargent's favourite and which is today considered his finest work - 1884's Portrait of Madame X - was widely panned when it was first shown. There's a lesson in there somewhere for today's cultural workers of all kinds, but I can't quite put my finger on it...

PhotobucketSargent's career was prolific, resulting in more than 900 paintings, 2000 watercolours, and numerous drawings; he is renowned for his portraits - whether socialites, writers, or politicians - but he created landscapes as well. Later in life he also took up sculpture.

Born on this day in 1856, Sargent was fortunate enough to train in the progressive atelier of Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran; Sargent's mentor favoured the alla prima method of painting which freed painters from a hidebound methodology that had been in use ever since the Renaissance, and would give rise to Impressionism.

Although born in Italy to American parents, Sargent spent most of his professional life in England; when one of his better known patrons, Edward VII, recommended him for a knighthood, though, he declined the offer.

Since most of his work was generated for commission, successive generations of artists have not venerated Sargent or his work anything like his considerable skills would suggest; English art critic Roger Fry, of the Bloomsbury Group, sniffed at Sargent's work in 1926, saying it lacked aesthetic quality. Then, as now, the successful, popular artist (whose acclaim, in this case, protected a scandalous private life from public approbation) is seen as worse than useless, while the wretch in the garret is the only 'real' artist.

Yet surely an essential component of aesthetics is the desire of people to look at the work, and today - more than eighty years after his death - ordinary people are still looking at the work of John Singer Sargent, despite what the pretentious might perceive as its shortcomings.
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