The Sargent I Knew by Mary Newbold Patterson Hale   
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A Musical Genius Spoiled 

If, as Mark Twain says, a child's first duty is to choose his parents carefully, John Sargent discharged that duty faithfully, and began his years as a student life in France with the fullest equipment in their power to give. At twenty he went to Paris to work in the studio of Carolus-Duran. His piano teacher solemnly protested against his decision, and warned Dr. and Mrs. Sargent that they were robbing the world of a great pianist. 

His rapid rise to fame was not because of his great talent alone; he would have come less quickly to the front had it not been seconded by an indomitable habit of work, unceasing, unremitting, which resulted in a deftness almost magical, and a power of swift completion which gave his canvases the look of having burst into bloom all at one moment. 

In the summer of 1876 Mrs. Sargent came to America with her son and elder daughter, their first visit to this side of the Atlantic, when Sargent declared and registered his American citizenship. His cousins remembered him that summer as much for his delightful music as for his continual sketching, and a passionate Italian love song, the words composed of the names of patent medicines. Music was his constant delight and he never lot his facility, although long ago he gave up all semblance of practicing. He read music quickly and accurately, had a strong sense of rhythm, a first rate music memory and a catholic taste down to Debussy. There he stopped, saying, "It is not music it is massage." 

Sargent enjoyed playing duets, always playing the bass with the same concentration with which he read, painted or played chess, giving himself entirely to the present interest. He read widely in several languages, and had a clear memory of what he read, with a quick sense of relation to one thing to another, and the development of thought and principles from one age to another. He was very fond of memoirs, and would read all available ones of any period with a keen appetite; also a few romances with a keen eye for the construction of the plot and reality of the characters and always travels and history. 

He wrote his own letters, scouting the idea of a secretary, and his handwriting was very difficult to decipher. One day a lady brought me a letter over which she had puzzled for three days. She could make out that is was something about he portrait, but that was all. It was a six-page letter giving the full details of shipping of her portrait from London, name of the agent, and the steamer by which it was to be sent, dates, etc., and all a Rosetta stone to her! Every morning he attacked his letters, opening all in familiar handwritings, answered all he could, and shoved aside the remainder, which was sometimes forgotten, so that terrible accumulations gathered for a day of reckoning in spite of his honourable intentions. A single letter, or even a brace, was sure to be answered promptly, but a great mass of papers seemed to swamp him and render him helpless. All sorts of people wrote to him on all sorts of subjects, some of them probably autograph hunters, and many of these letters he would answer, until time and endurance were exhausted, when he would stop, for a long time, but not forever. 

Once a lady wrote begging him to sign the portrait he had painted of Abraham Lincoln, as she felt it would add greatly to the value of the picture, which she proposed bringing to Boston for his signature. Sargent wrote a civil reply, pointing out that as he was born in 1856 he had not begun to paint portraits professionally before the president was assassinated. He was very patient under such attacks, though his paraphrase of Meredith was a cry from the heart:-- 

"So hard it seems that one must read 
Because another needs must write!"

Sargent's second visit to America was in the ‘eighties. He was no longer the student of the ‘seventies or the rising painter, but the risen. Carolus-Duran had chosen Sargent to paint his portrait, an honour which he followed by the compliment of becoming jealous as Sargent's fame grew. That portrait, and El Jaleo had brought Sargent to the front, and were the prelude to the years of portrait painting and the first part of the mural decorations in the Boston Public Library. Several visits to America were made in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties and the first series of visits closed in 1903. 

The child of the nursery myth and the fading letters was father to the man we knew. His ceaseless industry was rooted in the habits formed in childhood; his consideration for others, the outgrowth of courteous daily life of a family whose father "does everything for all of us." The ready give and take of Sargent's talk was in part the echo of what he had heard in his early days, to which his own wit and love of the ludicrous added much. He was a remarkable mimic, and with all his wit, mimicry, and common sense never said unkind things. Meanness and unfairness he would denounce, but the ordinary unkind and derogatory speech or comment was alien to him, kindly, courteous, helpful, truly interested in the work of any other painter, sculptor, or musician, always encouraging and giving time and thought to other people's tangles. 

Much had been written and more has been said about the "psychology" in Sargent's portraits. His are portraits of a painter whose hand accurately recorded what was before his eyes, fixing on the canvas for all time what was there in the flesh, which usually expressed what spirit, if any, was behind it. Ninety-nine men use there eyes so little that when the hundredth records a less incomplete vision, the ninety and nine rise up and accuse him of extra ocular powers, as if some inner eye had ranged a hidden field. Sargent painted the people he saw, and his amazing skills enabled him to put their exteriors on the canvas as he saw them, not as he divined or inferred their inner selves to be. He saw more and recorded more fully than other painters, just as he saw and noticed more things in a strange room than most people do. 

Sargent was not always fortunate in his sitters, and it should be remembered that at the time that he was painting some uninspiring portraits, he was also giving us such canvases as Miss Elizabeth Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), the Hon. Lura Lister, Miss Beatrice Goelet, Lady Victoria Stanley, and Mr. And Mrs. Field -- this last a presentation of enduring love, confidence, and protection which blinds one to its technical perfections. The beautiful relation of the couple if given to us by the same co-ordination of the eye and hand that put upon the canvas less charming and interesting people. It is a notable contradiction and a flight into the realm of the unlikely to suppose that one whose kindly use was not to speak in disparagement of others, should chose to paint the less lovely aspect of the sitter, leaving a belittling and enduring statement in paint. Sargent saw this or that; he knew what he saw and his hand painted it surely. 

A Biddable Child | A Musical Genius Spoiled | Painted Diaries | Portrait of Sargent | At the Front in France 



Sargent's Letters
Carolus-Duran 2nd painting 
El Jaleo 


Mrs. John J. Chapman (Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler) 
Lady Victoria Stanley 

Mr & Mrs John White Field

The Honorable Laura Lister 

Beatrice Goelet 


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved
Created July 30, 2001
Updated 1/8/2004

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