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My recent visits to the expansive “John Singer Sargent Watercolors” exhibit at MFA, Boston confirmed what a consummate artist Sargent was, developing exceptional skill with watercolors after a career spent in oil painting. In this later work, Sargent experimented successfully with Impressionism, a style previously foreign to him, and inventively approached all manner of new and old subjects, including portraiture, upon which his reputation had been won.
The exhibit prompted me to go back to an essay that has long gnawed at me by John Updike, entitled “Something Missing” (in “Just Looking: Essays on Art”, MFA Publications, reprinted 2001). In it, Updike accuses Sargent of lacking “psychological depth”, especially in his oil portraits of European patrons. In what I consider to be an important and misinterpreted point, Updike acknowledges that psychological depth was “not a quality, perhaps, that the sitters were paying for.”
However, in the perceptive analysis of five female oil portraits painted in the 1890’s that follows, Updike concedes that “these women, if not psychoanalyzed as Rembrandt and Velazquez and even Copley psychoanalyzed some of their sitters, are not cheaply beautified either, and are present as enigmatically and undeniably as real people in a room.” He even allows that many Sargent portraits “do penetrate into personality”, before he veers off-course into his own psychological evaluation.
Among Updike’s more provocative theories are: Sargent related better to Americans than to Europeans, he found Jews especially warm and engaging, “cheerful improvisations were Sargent’s native bent” and his male sitters “seem more in danger of idealization than the women.” He concludes that “one trouble might have been…Sargent distrusted portrait-making as an exercise of high art. Had he continued to evolve, of course, he might well, like Rembrandt, have lost his sitters.” This leaves me nearly speechless.
I think Updike’s condemnation of John Singer Sargent’s portraiture is misguided and that it is, in fact, Updike who is “missing something”. All of Sargent’s oil portraits were commissioned. Variations in his portraits are nothing less than a reflection of the tastes and desires of his clients; Sargent might well have made other choices had the execution of his portraits been left to him alone. That Updike misses this point so completely is further revealed in his observation that, “the sumptuous wealth of stuffs..detracts from the intelligent intensity with which the faces are rendered”.
As one who has spent the past seventeen years making commissioned photographic portraits, I can guess that Sargent’s clients wanted their “sumptuous wealth of stuffs” included in their portraits. True, the artist is chosen for his or her “eye”, a combination of style and skill, but the outcome of a paid commission must reflect the wishes of the client. This fact does not negate the talent of the artist, far from it. That Sargent was both artistically and socially facile enough to succeed in this balancing act seems to be grounds for dismissal by Updike. And succeed he did, for acumen even Updike has recognized. Perhaps he shouldn’t be faulted for his ignorance, but I don’t forgive Updike for scorning an exquisite portrait painter from whom I still draw inspiration. I suppose everyone has critics, but Sargent’s art has stood the test of time.