|"John S. Sargent" by Henry James
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Harper's Magazine, Ocober,1887 (pp. 683-691)
688 HARPER’S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE.
memorandum, rather than of a representation. A woman in a very voluminous white silk dress and black mantilla is pirouetting in the middle of a dusky room, to the accompaniment of her own castanets, and that of a row of men and women who sit in straw chairs against the white-washed wall, and thrum upon guitar and tambourine, or lift other castanets into the air. She appears almost colossal, and the twisted and inflated folds of her long dress increase her volume. She simpers, in profile, with a long chin, while she slants back at a dangerous angle, and the lamp-light (it proceeds from below, as if she were on a big platform) makes a strange play in her large face. In the background the straight line of black-clad, black-hatted, white-shirted musicians projects shadows against the wall, on which placards, guitars, and dirty finger-marks display themselves. The merit of this production is that the air of reality is given in it with remarkable breadth and boldness; its defect it is difficult to express, save by saying that it makes the spectator vaguely uneasy and even unhappy—-an accident the more to be regretted as a lithe, inspired female figure, given up to the emotion of the dance, is not intrinsically a displeasing object. “El Jaleo” sins, in my opinion, in the direction of ugliness, and, independently of the fact that the heroine is circling round incommoded by her petticoats, has a want of serenity.
This is not the defect of the charming, dusky, white - robed person who, in the Tangerine subject exhibited at the Salon of 1880 [Fumée d'Ambre Gris] (the fruit of an excursion to the African coast at the time of the artist’s visit to Spain), stands on a rug, under a great white Moorish arch, and from out of the shadows of the large drapery, raised pentwise by her hands, which covers her head, looks down, with painted eyes and brows showing above a bandaged mouth, at the fumes of a beautiful censer or chafing-dish placed on the carpet. I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; but in her muffled contemplation and her pearl-colored robes, under her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable. The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminated tones.
In dividing the honor that Mr. Sargent has won by his finest work between the portrait of the young lady of 1881 [Madame Ramon Subercaseaux] and the group of four young girls which was painted in 1882 [Daughters of Edward Darley Boit], and exhibited, with the success it deserved, the following year, I must be careful to give the latter picture not too small a share. The artist has done nothing more felicitous and interesting than this view of a rich, dim, rather generalized French interior (the perspective of a hall with a shining floor, where screens and tall Japanese vases shimmer and loom), which encloses the life and seems to form the happy play-world of a family of charming children. The treatment is eminently unconventional, and there is none of the usual symmetrical balancing of the figures in the foreground. The place is regarded as a whole; it is a scene, a comprehensive impression; yet none the less do the little figures in their white pinafores (when was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?) detach themselves, and live with a personal life. Two of the sisters stand hand in hand at the back, in the delightful, the almost equal, company of a pair of immensely tall emblazoned jars, which overtop them, and seem also to partake of the life of the picture; the splendid porcelain and the aprons of the children shine together, and a mirror in the brown depth behind them catches the light. Another little girl presents herself, with abundant tresses and slim legs, her hands behind her, quite to the left; and the youngest, nearest to the spectator, sits on the floor and plays with her doll. The naturalness of the composition, the loveliness of the complete effect, the light, free security of the execution, the sense it gives us as of assimilated secrets and instinct and knowledge playing together—all this makes the picture as astonishing a work on the part of a young man of twenty-six as the portrait of 1881 was astonishing on the part of a young man of twenty-four.
It is these remarkable encounters
that justify us in writing almost prematurely of a career which is not
yet half unfolded. Mr. Sargent is sometimes accused of a want of “finish,”
but if finish means the last word of expressiveness of touch, “The
Hall with the Four Children,” as we may call it, may stand as a permanent
reference on this point. If the picture of the Spanish
dancer illustrates, as it seems to me to do, the latent dangers of
the Impressionist practice, so this finer
Fumée d'Ambre Gris
Madame Ramon Subercaseaux
Exhibited at Salon 1881
By: Natasha Wallace
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