"John S. Sargent" by Henry James  
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Harper's Magazine, Ocober,1887 (pp. 683-691)
(page 7 of 9)
 JOHN S. SARGENT.                       689
performance shows what victories it may achieve. And in relation to the latter I must repeat what I said about the young lady with the flower, that this is the sort of work which, when produced in youth, leads the attentive spectator to ask unanswerable questions. He finds himself murmuring, “Ay, but what is left?” and even wondering whether it is an advantage to an artist to obtain early in life such possession of his means that the struggle with them, the discipline of tatonnement, ceases to exist for him. May not this breed an irresponsibility of cleverness, a wantonness, an irreverence— what is vulgarly termed a “larkiness”— on the part of the youthful genius who has, as it were, all his fortune in his pocket? Such are the possibly superfluous broodings of those who are critical, even in their warmest admirations, and who sometimes suspect that it may be better for an artist to have a certain part of his property invested in unsolved difficulties. When this is not the case, the question with regard to his future simplifies itself somewhat portentously. “What will he do with it?” we ask, meaning by the pronoun the sharp, completely forged weapon. It becomes more purely a question of responsibility, and we hold him altogether to a higher account. This is the case with Mr. Sargent; he knows so much about the art of painting that he perhaps does not fear emergencies quite enough, and that having knowledge to spare, he may be tempted to play with it and waste it. Various, curious, as we have called him, he occasionally tries experiments which seem to arise from the mere high spirits of his brush, and runs risks little courted by the votaries of the literal, who never expose their necks to escape from the common. For the literal and the common he has the smallest taste when he renders an object into the language of painting, his translation is a generous paraphrase. 

As I have intimated, he has painted little but portraits; but he has painted very many of these, and I shall not attempt in so few pages to give a catalogue of his works. Every canvas that has come from his hands has not figured at the Salon; some of them have seen the light at other exhibitions in Paris; some of them in London (of which city Mr. Sargent is now an inhabitant), at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery. If he has been mainly represented by portraits, there are two or three little subject-pictures of which I retain a grateful memory. There stands out in particular, as a pure gem, a small picture exhibited at the Grosvenor, representing a small group of Venetian girls of the lower class, sitting in gossip together one summer’s day in the big, dim hall of a shabby old palazzo [Venetian Interior]. The shutters let in a clink of light; the scagliola pavement gleams faintly in it; the whole place is bathed in a kind of transparent shade; the tone of the picture is dark and cool. The girls are vaguely engaged in some very humble household work; they are counting turnips or stringing onions, and these small vegetables, enchantingly painted, look as valuable as magnified pearls. The figures are extraordinarily natural and vivid; wonderfully light and fine is the touch by which the painter evokes all the small familiar Venetian realities (he has handled them with a vigor altogether peculiar in various other studies which I have not space to enumerate [Venetian Studies]), and keeps the whole thing free from that element of humbug which has ever attended most attempts to reproduce the Italian picturesque. I am, however, drawing to the end of my remarks without having mentioned a dozen of those brilliant triumphs in the field of portraiture with which Mr. Sargent’s name is preponderantly associated. I jumped from his Carolus Duran to the masterpiece of 1881 without speaking of the charming “Madame Pailleron” of 1879, or the picture of this lady’s children the following year. Many, or rather most, of Mr. Sargent’s sitters have been French, and he has studied the physiognomy of this nation so attentively that a little of it perhaps remains in the brush with which to-day, more than in his first years, he represents other types. I have alluded to his superb “Docteur Pozzi,” to whose very handsome, still youthful head and slightly artificial posture he has given so fine a French cast that he might be excused if he should, even on remoter pretexts, find himself reverting to it. This gentleman stands up in his brilliant red dressing-gown with the prestance of certain figures of Vandyck. I should like to commemorate the portrait of a lady of a certain age, and of an equally certain interest of appearance—a lady in black, with black hair, a black hat, and a vast feather, which was displayed at that en- 

pp. 683 | 684 | 685 | 686 | 687 | 688 | 689 |690 | 691 


Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt) 

El Jaleo 
Venetian Interior 
Carolus Duran 
Madame Pailleron 
Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron 
Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home  



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