john singer sargent: paintings, drawings, watercolorsby richard ormond

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  • John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors by Richard OrmondReview by: Hedley H. RhysThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 105-106Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 10/06/2014 09:22

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    As it turns out, Jongkind was not entirely free in this matter, for his letters of the early 1850's prove the complicity of the art market. In order to survive, he had to paint moonlit scenes:

    "Il n y a pas dans le moment-ci un peintre du claire delune 'a Paris, je tacherai de me faire adoptd cela commence pas a moi, par le public lui meme, je dis il n y a pas du concurrence pour arrive plu vite .. ." (page 12).

    And he also found a market for typical Dutch scenes, although his great love was the French countryside. One of the chief contri- butions of these letters, in fact, is the lesson they offer in the work-

    ing of the art market. Jongkind's constant concern is the disposi- tion of his works, and as a by-product we have innumerable in-

    sights into the relation of artist and dealer, artist and client, and dealer and client. We can be grateful for this, because the letters are not otherwise rich as witness accounts. Jongkind knew a great many artists but he seldom commented on their work (the refer- ence to Troyon already cited is an exception).

    Taken by themselves, Jongkind's letters are only of modest interest and cannot compare with those of Theodore Rousseau, Millet or Daubigny. But to their plain stems Mrs. Hefting has attached a whole series of blossoms in her extensive annotations. Individual buildings and whole sites have been identified, dated, and their alterations documented. Each artist, dealer and client mentioned in the letters calls forth a summary biography. The deal- er Firmin Martin, for example, so important for Millet, Rousseau, Cals and others, is given a five-hundred-word biography (pages 32f.), complete to the successive addresses he established for his shop. Dozens upon dozens of such rewarding glosses form an in- valuable body of information. It should not be thought that they are dry flowers lacking color. Mrs. Hefting is a perceptive judge and she interpolates comments which time and again seem just right. E. C. Lambinet is described as a painter of landscapes "fins et sensibles, qui, malgrd leur modestie et leur peu d'eclat n'ont sans doute pas manque d'exercer une certaine influence" (page 43). The writer and photographer Etienne Carjat is compar- ed to Nadar to his disadvantage: "Il a survecu

    " son epoque par son talent de photographe. Quant a lui, il se croyait plut6t poete, critique d'art et dessinateur. II avait comme trait commun avec Nadar l'universalite, mais non la spiritualite ni la verve" (page 137).

    As for the vessel which contains these riches, it proves to be a bit unwieldy. The annotations follow each letter, requiring the reader to use the index (fortunately an excellent one) to pursue a given subject. Both letters and annotations have two sets of foot- notes, one at the rear and the other on each page. The latter are signalled by black stars in cumulative numbers, so that on page 5 the seven notes shoot out a total of fifty-six of these prickly little florets. A perfectly unnecessary concordance takes up ten pages of front matter, although the chronology which follows the letters is a model of economy.

    The great value of Mrs. Hefting's work is so apparent that the grateful reader will hope that she plans to undertake a straight- forward monograph on Jongkind. Her fine introduction and the many notes prove that she is alert to such central issues as plein- air painting, naturalism, and sketch versus finished picture. Her information on other artists, on dealers and on clients, if re- arranged in biographical form, would make a very fine study of artistic life in Paris. Meanwhile, we can allow ourselves the endless pleasures of rearranging her present offerings in our own vases.


    Tale University

    RICHARD ORMOND, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, drawings, watercolors, London and New York, Phaidon Press and

    Harper & Row, 1970. Pp. 264; 32 color pls., 120 black- and-white pls., 52 other ills. $20.00

    In the idiom of the 1970's we might describe Sargent as an Estab- lishment painter alienated from the avant-garde. In his own day he was to Pissarro ". . . but an adroit performer"; to Whistler he was ". . . neither better nor worse than the usual Academician," and to Mary Cassatt he was just "a buffoon." William Rothenstein was less severe, yet even for him, Sargent, ". . . despite his great gifts, remained outside the charmed circle." Should there be a movement away from the idea of the superior function of the

    avant-garde and a distinction made between the qualities of

    painting and the values of innovation, then the level of Sargent's achievement will have to be reassessed. Charles Merrill Mount, in his 1955 biography of Sargent, passionately attempted to do just that. The book is now in its third edition. Overtly at least, the latest monograph on Sargent, by his grandnephew Richard Or- mond, has no such polemical intention. It presents straightfor- wardly the circumstances of Sargent's life and career, the stages of his growth as an artist, and it includes his activities in branches of painting and decoration other than portraiture. Mr. Ormond's

    quiet tone and sensitive discussion of the pictures, plus the good quality of the plates, invite a fresh and unprejudiced examina- tion of Sargent's work. The assessment or reassessment can be the reader's own; the author is not insistent. There are one or two surprises in both the text and the plates.

    Though the text is relatively short, nothing of importance has been omitted. Sargent's training under Carolus-Duran, his en- thusiasm for VelAzquez and things Spanish, and his equally familiar successes and failures in Paris between 1874 and 1884 are all fully treated. In addition, his heretofore somewhat neglected awareness of Manet and Monet receives its merited attention. The definition of essential differences between Sargent's and the Impressionists' vision, especially Monet's, is succinct and suggestive. It is a theme that could be developed. To the portraits of the nineties, Mr. Ormond brings a new appreciation. He looks at them not as social documents or "reports about other things" but as works of art, as examples of Sargent's mature ability as a painter. Seen in this way the virtuosity of their execution becomes an asset, an ex- pression of the possibilities of paint. The concern of more recent American painters with pure painting comes unavoidably to mind. Detailed information about "other things," about the sitters, their national and social ambience, when, where, and why they sat and so on is given in the excellent notes to the plates.

    A special chapter is devoted to Sargent "off duty," to his work as a landscapist and sketcher. It includes a short exploration of his use of paint as a means of expression that is almost independent of the subject depicted, and mention is made here of other critics who have shown that "the American Abstract Expressionists are, in one sense, closer to Sargent than to Picasso." However, the author does not insist on the point nor does he, as perhaps an American writer might have, attempt to see in this painterly ex- pression a continuation of an earlier American sensibility by pos- sibly invoking Washington Allston's appreciation of Veronese; "He who can thus, as it were, embody an abstraction is no mere pander to the senses." Be all that as it may, Mr. Ormond is, throughout the book, consistently accurate in describing Sargent's different modes of painting and keenly responsive to the effect each produces. And in this section his skill and sensitivity serve him well. The chapter also brings to needed notice the works that are free of the social snobbery which is such a hindrance to an appre- ciation of so many of Sargent's portraits.

    The treatment of Sargent's work at the front in World War I is factual and tactfully brief. Even so, the inadequacies of his talent and sensibility to the task assigned him become clear, deficiencies underscored by the pictures reproduced. Sargent appears as though insulated from the experiences of ordinary men. During much of that war he was occupied with his Boston murals. These are so extraneous to all else he did that Mr. Ormond has confined the essential information about them to an appendix. Perhaps

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    also for other reasons, that, for the time being, is where the