The Fall and Rise of Sargent  (Frontpage)   (What's New
The reasons for the demise of Sargent's popularity and his art's rebirth
(Page 2 of 4)
Paul Gaugin
Riders on the Beach 
oil on canvas

John Singer Sargent 
Sir William Rothenstein 
Heny Tonks 
The Unknown God 


The Public's Reaction

It's hard to see how shocking the Post-Impressionist show was to the public, but it was like nothing ever seen. 

One of the best accounts was recorded by Wilfrid Blunt: 

15th Nov. -- [Went] to the Grafton Gallery to look at what are called the Post Impressionists pictures sent over from Paris. The exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle. I am inclined to think the latter, for there is no trace of humour in it. Still less is there a trace of sense of skill or taste, good or bad, or art or cleverness. Nothing but the gross puerility which scrawls indecencies on the walls of a privy.  

The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them . .  .  

Apart from the frames, the whole collection should not be worth 5 pounds and then only  for the pleasure of making a bonfire of them. Yet two or three of our art critics have pronounced in their favour. Roger Fry, a critic of taste, has written an introduction to the catalogue, and Desmond MacCarthy acts as secretary to the show . . . They are the works of idleness and impotent stupidity, a pornographic show.

But the fairest and probably the truest reflection came from a letter of Eric Gill (1882-1940 British sculptor and graphic artist) to Sir William Rothenstein  (1874-1945, British painter)  
“You are missing an awful excitement just now being provided for us in London, to wit, the exhibition of Post-Impressionists now at the Grafton Galleries. All the critics are tearing one another’s eyes out over it, and the sheep and goats are inextricably mixed up. The show quite obviously represents a reaction and transition, and so, if, like Fry, you are a factor in that reaction and transition, then you like the show. If, like MacColl and Robert Ross, you are inseparably connected with the things reacted against and the generation from which it is a transition, then you don’t like it.”  

(The Impressionists and their Legacy, P.645, Barnes &  Noble, 1995)

Eric couldn’t have put it better, Sargent was clearly with the older generation. In a caricature of the show done by Henry Tonks, Fry is shown holding up a dead cat, a symbol of pure form, to an unimpressed audience of staid Royal Academist; and right in the front row was Sargent. 

More than halfway through the exhibition Fry goes public in an article printed in the Nation. In some confusion on Fry’s part he includes Sargent in a list of artists who supported the ideas of the Post-Impressionist. Sargent feels compelled to respond and he does so in two open letters to the Nation (January 7th and 14th respectively). In the first letter  Sargent concluded:  

“The fact is that I am absolutely sceptical as to their [Post-Impressionist] having any claim whatever to being works of art . . ” (Charteris, P.192) 

It was the worst possible thing any artist could say about another artist. 

Desond MacCarthy said later that in the mist of the turmoil  Roger Fry “remained strangely calm and ‘did not give a damn’” as to what anyone thought. But it clearly did bother. Sargent was the eight-hundred pound gorilla, hugely popular and his words weighed heavier than any minor critic's. Though he may never have admitted it, the zeal and ferocity in which Fry dug in and fought on was like a persecuted prophet.  

The sting from Sargent must have festered for years for when Fry finally reviewed Sargent’s memorial Exhibition the words came haunting back: 

“I am sure that he [Sargent] was no less distinguished and genuine as a man than, in my opinion, he was striking and undistinguished as an illustrator and nonexisting as an artist” (Charteris, P.194)
Post-Impressionist | Public Reaction 
Critical Turn | Rehabilitation

By Natasha Wallace 
Copyright 2000, All rights reserved


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2005 all rights reserved
Created 4/1/2000

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt seems to have been quite the character. In 1899, he described John Singer Sargent after first meeting him in London on the front steps of the Wyndham family home: "A rather good-looking fellow in pot hat, whom at my first sight I took to be a superior mechanic"

(quoted in Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, 1994, p. 97)