Beneath the Surface: John Singer Sargent and the Gilded Age

Beneath the Surface: John Singer Sargent and the Gilded Age

The vagaries of artistic reputation are a recurrent fascination of cultural life. Canons boom but also redeploy. There is a time to gather respect and a time to cast it away. The movements of conventional wisdom up and down, to and fro, are frequently hilarious, sometimes depressing, occasionally thrilling.

For a welcome case of a rising artistic stock, consider John Singer Sargent. He was, no mistake, hugely talented and original, by turns bold and subtle, lavish in praise of beauty but no sentimentalist, witty though not subversive, an aesthete’s aesthete, one of the first American painters to gain respect on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Florence, trained in Paris, and thus not exactly home-grown, he was admired by Henry James and Claude Monet, and can be proudly brandished as our guy among high-status cosmopolitans, an American link between the Salons and the moderns, able to hold his head up with the Impressionists, with whom he was once (misleadingly) linked.

Nationalism, then, might seem to be a crude sociological reason for Sargent’s revival as a hot art ticket, a draw for crowds in Washington and Boston recently and then for follow-up shows at New York’s Jewish Museum and New York University. Socio-economic climate links our age and his. It should not surprise us that hordes would gather to inspect and mingle with portraits of the wealthy around the turn of the last century in a spirit of awe and conspicuous admiration. As objects of fascination, the rich, after all, we shall always have with us, especially during Gilded Age II. In this light, Sargent might seem the anti-Whitney: In your face, Hans Haacke!

But it would be unwise to leap to the assumption that Sargent is back simply because today’s patrons love the material world he painted, or because they are America Firsters, or because they automatically approve of the lives and work of the worthies who could afford Sargent’s attentions. Nor does Sargent turn out to be what one expects. Whatever motivates people to turn to his work, they find themselves facing something deeper and more mysterious than the pleasures of beautiful faces, beautiful gowns, and beautiful skin. In front of his peak work, they behold intimations that something exists beyond the material splendor that money can buy. There’s a paradox that goes to the heart of Sargent’s achievement: he was a connoisseur of material glory who transcended materialism. Sargent tantalizes, as did his friend Henry James in prose, and in one similar way: a sense that what you get is more than what you see. He is, unexpectedly, a spiritual painter, trailing whiffs of transcendence that even the most prosperous art-goers crave.

Sargent was not a great society painter, he was a great painter who painted society—that is, capital-S Society when it was a confident, self-conscious class, radiant with possessions and composure, convinced that its members had been singled out to deserve the...

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