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 4 of 4)
Andy Warhol 
American Pop Artist C.1930-1987

Campbell's Soup Can 
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York 
Silkscreen on canvas 
35 3/4 x 24 in
John S Sargent
White Ships 
Brooklyn Museum, New York 
34.4 x 48.6 cm (13 9/16 x 19 1/8 in.)
John S Sargent
Bill Gates collection 
27 1/2 42 1/2 in.
Rehabilitation of Sargent
"The contemptuous indifference toward [Sargent] is sure to pass, and I prophesy he will be appreciated at his value" --Bernard Berenson, 1957 [1]
Sargent's art languished until the late 60's and 70's when Pop Art begins to sound shallow -- just as "empty", just as "superficial" as anything Fry complained about in 1910. The lines between Commercial Art and High Art start to  blur and Andy Warhol is busy stretching his fifteen minutes of fame into three decades.  

In the 1940's and '50's Sargent's watercolors are first to emerge from the ruins. The charge that they were just the work of a tourist on vacation just didn't stick -- at least to some. Unlike his oils, these were mercifully detached from the sociological baggage of the now class-conscious art world, and his deftly handled brush strokes of water, opaque color on paper were appreciated for their own merit.  

It is ironic that the paintings done 
solely for his own pleasure where now the paintings most admired and loved.  

The scholarly work begins to build in the 1950's. In ‘54, Frederick A Sweet puts Sargent with Whistler and Mary Cassette in an exhibition and catalogue of Americans working aboard. In it he said Sargent had been getting a bum rap. In ‘57  Charles Merrill Mount’s much needed fuller biography is published with a revised addition in the late 60's. By the 70's a host of scholars are looking at Sargent including his great grand nephew Richard Ormond.  

But it isn’t until 1986, that the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in conjunction with The Art Institute of Chicago, put together one of the most significant retrospectives since his death. In this one-man show, 93 oils and 87 watercolors and sketches are exhibited on the two-city tour with a major catalogue book of his works edited by Patricia Hills; along with Stanley Olson’s full biography – the most complete to date.  

For the first time in many decades Sargent gets a fair treatment and exposure to this public that virtually has never heard of him. People are astounded. Just as he had done generations before, the public is amazed by his body of work and once more Sargent is brought to the imagination. 

In 1996, Bill Gates, billionaire and Microsoft chairman, buys Sargent's Cashmere from Sotherby's for $11.1 million, setting a record for the highest price of any American painting to that time.  

Sargent is back – and back in a big way. 

By 1998, one of the most ambitious exhibitions is mounted with the help of Richard Ormond. First in London, then in Washington DC, and finishing in Boston, close to a million people attend the three city show that runs from October '98 through September '99.  

A flurry of books are published, other major exhibits are planned and the public can't get enough. In April of 2000, a documentary of Sargent is aired on PBS. In it, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Senior Curator National Gallery of Art, summed it up best:  

When I studied the history of art when Sargent was an issue he was held up as an example of almost everything that was wrong with art. He was superficial, he was just concerned with fashion, he only painted pretty people, and so on.  

What I think we now begin to see over and over and over again is that this simply isn't true; or if he was concerned with dress, with costume, with fashion -- that was a very deliberate and significant part of his art.  We also, I think, begin to see that he was not at all superficial, that his paintings are often charged with psychological meaning.

It has taken two score and three years,  but the prophesy of Bernard Berenson, has finally come to fruition -- Sargent is once more, unquestionably in the hearts of this generation, an artist of the highest degree.  

If one could answer Roger Fry, one  might say:  

that Sargent was NOT taken for an artist will perhaps seem incredible to THIS rising generation. We must abandon the lens of a particular modernism and leave that to its own art -- in its own time (at least as it concerns Sargent) and let us search now with fresh perspective for the wealth of aesthetic values that are INDEED intrinsic to Sargent's art. 

Post-Impressionist | Public Reaction 
Critical Turn | Rehabilitation


From: Peiling Huang
<ph bo log>

Date: Thursday, December 5, 2002 

Dear Natasha:  

I really like your web site and found the article "the Fall and Rise of Sargent" especially interesting.  Is it possible for me to have its sources?  Furthermore, would you please explain the  circumstances on which Berenson gave his prediction as well as his reasoning?

As to the influence of Pop-art on Sargent's resurrection, I still don't quite understand the connection.  

Finally, do you think Post-modernism also plays a role in the reappraisal of his art?  

Thank you very much, and please CARRY ON!!!

With best wishes, 

Sincerely, Paola (from Bologna)


From Berenson's diary of 1957 quoated in Trevor Fairbrother, "John Singer Sargent", 1994; P.136

Bernard Berenson (1865 - 1959) US (Lithuanian-born) art historian, critic and contemporary of Sargent.


 . . .born in Vilnius, Lithuania. He studied at the local synagogue before his family emigrated to Boston (1875), where he studied at Boston University (1883) and Harvard (1887 BA). Subsidized by Isabella Stewart Gardner, he studied in Paris, London, Oxford, Berlin, and Italy (1887-8). He settled in the 18th-c Villa I Tatti near Florence and devoted himself to the study and identification of mediaeval and Renaissance works, specializing in Italian art. An honoured scholar and authenticator, he acquired prints and paintings for museums and private collectors, such as Isabella Gardner, and for international dealers, thereby making himself wealthy, and attracting criticism from some quarters for placing his connoisseurship at the service of profit-makers. He wrote many critical essays and scholarly works, notably The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1902) and Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1938), and published a three-volume autobiography (1949-52). He became famous for his ability to attribute paintings to artists based on specific characteristics of style and technique - even identifying hitherto unknown painters. At his death, the Villa I Tatti was left to Harvard University as a centre for Italian Renaissance studies. 

One of Berenson's most famouse quoates is "Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago." 
-- Cole's Quotables


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2003 all rights reserved
Created 4/1/2000
Updated 12/18/2003