John Singer Sargent and the Art of Elegance - The Objective Standard

Oscar Wilde, who lived across the street from John Singer Sargent, once said that “all art is quite useless.”1 Fifty years later, W. H. Auden said art (specifically, poetry) “makes nothing happen.”2 These statements are true, in a sense: Art is not a device for accomplishing some larger task, but a statement—an evaluation of life and the world. An encounter with a successful artwork is a process of involvement—of realization and judgment—on the audience’s part, just as the act of creating it is a process of judgment and articulation by the artist.

That is what differentiates art from instruction or argument, which are meant to teach or persuade. Art shows us a world in the form of a proposed idealization, which viewers, readers, or listeners then evaluate in terms of their own values. The audience sees, hears, or feels the world the artist has created, and asks, “Is this the kind of world I want to live in, and why?”3 That does not, of course, mean that good art is always pleasant. On the contrary, some great art—Goya or Dostoyevsky, for example—presents us with a world of horrors and invites our judgment that that is not the world we would like to live in. But either way, art is an activity, not a tool.

But in another sense, Wilde and Auden were wrong. Art is not useless, but a most useful thing—even a psychological and spiritual necessity, as a projection and expression of our values. And far from making nothing happen, art’s power to convey and inspire is profoundly motivating. In fact, many, if not most, of mankind’s most significant accomplishments have been inspired, or at least accompanied, by great works of art.

The point is that our profoundest beliefs about life—our evaluation of such things as joy and pain, war and peace, success and suffering—influence our appreciation of art. To illustrate this, I want to examine my own favorite painter, John Singer Sargent. At one time America’s most celebrated portrait painter, Sargent spent his stellar career creating a world of spontaneity, glamour, and joy. Yet his reputation fell after his death, when intellectuals came to view these values as passé, even antisocial. Sargent, one critic claimed, was a mere illustrator, not an artist. Fortunately, interest in Sargent began to revive in the 1980s, when artists and critics began reevaluating his significance. Today, he again is considered among America’s finest painters. Yet the scope of his artistic virtues still is not fully appreciated. . . .

More than any of his contemporaries, Sargent expressed the glamour that emerging capitalism made possible. Yet that is just what made him incomprehensible or unacceptable to later artists and critics.
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1. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Oxford World Classics, 2006), 4.

2. W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 89, in W. H. Auden: Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage, 2007).

3. I use this phrase deliberately. Art does not merely ask if this is the world we do live in—a mere descriptive act—but involves evaluation, too: It invites our judgment about whether what it portrays is the kind of experience we consider worthy.

4. The exact number is unknown. His complete paintings have been published in nine volumes by Yale University Press, but this omits sketches, sculptures, and other works.

5. John Singer Sargent, Rehearsal of the Pas de loup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver,

6. Richard Ormand and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Complete Paintings vol. 3: The Later Portraits (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 15.

7. Tore Boeckmann, “Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism,” The Objective Standard 3, no. 1 (Spring 2008),

8. Elizabeth Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent (New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1998), 16.

9. Love Locked Out: The Memoirs of Anna Lea Merritt, edited by Galina Gorokhoff (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), 87.

10. Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent, 15.

11. John Singer Sargent, Miss Helena Dunham, 1892,

12. Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Miss Amelia Van Buren,

13.James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Brown: The Felt Hat,

14. Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (New York: Norton, 1996).

15. Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait (New York: St. Martin’s, 1986), 84.

16. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 4, translated by Stanley Godman (London: Routledge,1958), 224.

17. Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise,,_Sunrise#/media/File:Monet_-_Impression,_Sunrise.jpg.

18. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (New York: Knopf, 1981), 113.

19. Hauser, Social History, vol. 4, 175, 176.

20. Hauser, Social History, vol. 4, 229.

21. See, for example, Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1969), 39; Hauser, Social History, vol. 4, 230.

22. Claude Monet, La Cathédrale de Rouen, harmonie blanche,

23. John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo,

24. I borrow the useful term “design theme” from Boeckmann, “Caspar David Friedrich.”

25. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Evening Mood,

26. Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000), 43.

27. Carter Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent (New York: Abbeville Press, 1982), 66.

28. Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross,,_American_-_Portrait_of_Dr._Samuel_D._Gross_(The_Gross_Clinic)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

29. Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning,

30. Claude Monet, La Cabane des Douaniers à Pourville,

31. Camille Pissarro, Woman and Child at the Well,

32. Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, 66.

33. Devon Cox, The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde and Sargent in Tite Street (London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2015), 148.

34. Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, 76.

35. John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Loise Pailleron,

36. Charles Joshua Chaplin, Portrait of a Young Girl,

37. Oscar Wilde called the painting “vicious and meretricious”; Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 158; and it is possible that it inspired The Turn of the Screw, the novel written shortly afterward by Sargent’s great admirer, Henry James.

38. John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,

39. John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mme. Gautreau,

40. We do not know exactly when he repainted the strap. See “John Singer Sargent’s Photo of Madame X,”

41. Ratcliff, Sargent, 85.

42. Deborah Davis, Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (New York: Jeremy Tarcher, 2004), 177.

43. Davis, Strapless, 178–80.

44. John Singer Sargent, Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home,

45. Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent, 27.

46. Amélie was so humiliated by the scandal that she left Paris and moved to London, where she remained for the rest of her life. A decade later, she posed for another portrait, this time by Gustave Courtois, in which she commented on her portrait with Sargent. This time she reversed the profile, looking to her right—dressed in white, not black, and once again with the strap hanging off of her shoulder. Although technically inferior to Sargent’s work, the painting conveys a humanity and individuality lacking in Madame X.

47. Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1955), 269.

48. Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, 84.

49. Ratcliff, Sargent, 95, 99.

50. John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,

51. Ratcliff, Sargent, 101.

52. Ratcliff, Sargent, 234.

53. Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, 242.

54. John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter,

55. Krishnadev Calabur, “Clinton’s Portrait Has Hint of Lewinsky’s Blue Dress, Artist Says,” NPR, March 2, 2015,

56. Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond (Marietta, GA: Longstreet Press, 1998), 8.

57. John Singer Sargent, Elsie Palmer,

58. Donna M. Lucey, Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas (New York: Norton, 2017), 56–57.

59. John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Chanler,

60. John Singer Sargent, Betty Wertheimer,

61. John Singer Sargent, Carmencita,

62. John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley,

63. John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Charles Thursby,

64. Gibson even drew Sargent himself. Sargent, in turn, painted Gibson’s sister-in-law, Lady Astor, who, among other things, was the first woman to hold a seat in the British House of Commons.

65. Gibson and Sargent both were reacting to similar cultural forces and with similar intentions in their representations of the New Woman. Emily Louisa Moore, John Singer Sargent’s British and American Sitters 1890–1910: Interpreting Cultural Identity within Society Portraits, vol. 1 (PhD diss., University of York, 2016) 103,

66. John Singer Sargent, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes,

67. Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 155.

68. Fernand Paillet, Edith Minturn Stokes,

69. Celia Beaux, Edith Stokes,

70. John Singer Sargent, Lady Speyer,

71. Jonathan Summers, “Lady Speyer, A Forgotten Violinist,” British Library, Sound and Vision Blog, May 9, 2018,

72. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,'Avignon.jpg.

73. Jackie Willschlager, The Day Modern Art Was Invented: Picasso’s Demoiselles, Financial Times, January 4, 2007,

74. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “sexy” had been used in the 1890s, but it only came into common parlance in the 1920s. (There seems to be no evidence of the common legend that it was first used to describe Rudolph Valentino.) Eroticism was, of course, a feature of 19th-century culture, but sexiness—meaning a vivacious, flirtatious, positive, secular joy in sexuality—was not. Bouguereau’s Evening Mood is certainly erotic, but it is far from sexy. The pin-ups of Earl Moran are sexy but not erotic. Incidentally, Sargent painted—not counting mythological figures—only a single female nude: Life Study of an Egyptian Girl (1891), but he painted many male nudes. This has led generations of historians to speculate that Sargent was homosexual, although no evidence exists either way. In fact, there is no evidence of Sargent ever having a significant romantic relationship.

75. John Singer Sargent, Mrs. George Swinton,

76. John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw,

77. Photo of Gertrude Vernon at the time of her engagement,

78. Julia Rayer Rolfe, The Portrait of a Lady: Sargent and Lady Agnew (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1997), 22.

79. John Singer Sargent, Henry Lee Higginson,

80. John Singer Sargent, The Misses Vickers,

81. John Singer Sargent, Mrs Ralph Curtis,

82. John Singer Sargent, Wertheimer Paintings,

83. See, for example, Renate Brosch, “Insidious Interiors: John Singer Sargent’s Theatrical Versions of Domestic Portraiture,” in Christiane Schlote and Peter Zenzinger, eds., New Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Theatre and Drama (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2003); Ray Carney, “Knowing Too Much: Critical Fashion and Fashions in Criticism,” Boston Book Review, December 1994.

84. John Singer Sargent, John D. Rockefeller Sr.,

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85. John Singer Sargent, Charles Deering at Brickell Point, Miami,

86. Chaim M. Rosenberg, The International Harvester Company: A History of the Founding Families (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2019), 58, 82.

87. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Crop Production Historical Track Records, April 2018, 206–07,

88. Department of Agriculture, Crop Production, 122.

89. U.S. Department of Commerce, Agriculture 1950: A Graphic Summary, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1952), pt. 6, 69.

90. Rudolf Kuenzli and Francis Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 78. Duchamp did not write his own name but the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”

91. John Singer Sargent, Venetian Water Carriers,

92. John Singer Sargent, Venetian Glass Workers,

93. Bringing Down Marble by John Singer Sargent

94. John Singer Sargent, Lizzatori II,

95. Fairbrother, Sensualist, 145.

96. John Singer Sargent, Gassed,

97. Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 101–2; Jane De Hart Mathews, “Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for Cultural Democracy,” Journal of American History 62, no. 2 (September 1975): 316–39.

98. Diego Rivera, Oil Portrait of Edsel Ford,

99. Note the oversized hands—a symbol for labor in Rivera’s art, who, like a “good” Communist, deprecated the intellectual work done by industrial leaders and investors.

100. Sargent’s biographer Charles Mount believed that Fry was motivated entirely by personal pique due to an incident in 1911 in which Sargent took the (for him) extremely unusual step of publicly expressing his views on aesthetics. Fry had organized a gallery showing of “Post-Impressionist” paintings months before and had invited Sargent to participate. Sargent declined. Shortly afterward, when the showing proved a critical disaster, Fry defended himself in an article in The Nation in which he listed Sargent as an example of “Post-Impressionism.” Sargent replied in a letter to the editor that his “sympathies” were “in exactly the opposite direction” from Fry’s. As far as the “novelties” Fry had exhibited, Sargent said, “I am entirely skeptical as too their having any claim whatsoever to being works of art.” Mount, Sargent: A Biography, 258–59. But although this doubtless offended Fry, it seems unlikely that Fry was motivated by mere revenge. Quentin Bell, “John Sargent and Roger Fry,” Burlington Magazine (November 1957): 380–82.

101. Roger Fry, “John S. Sargent,” 172, 181, in Transformations: Critical and Speculative Essays on Art (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956); Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1940), 230.

102. Adrianne Rubin, “From Impressionism to Post-Impressionism: Continuities in Roger Fry’s Concept of Aesthetic Perception,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 14, no. 2 (Summer 2015),

103. Fry, “John S. Sargent,” 176.

104. Fry, “John S. Sargent,” 180.

105. Fry, Transformations, 180.

106. Fry, “John S. Sargent,” 176.

107. Roger Fry, “Royal Academy,” The Pilot, May 12, 1900, 322.

108. Louis Auchincloss, “A Sargent Portrait,” American Heritage 37, no. 6 (October–November 1986).

109. Roger Fry, “The Late Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema,” 149, in Christopher Reed, ed., A Roger Fry Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

110. Roger Fry, “Art in a Socialism,” Burlington Magazine (April 191): 38.

111. David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), 122.

112. Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America 1865–1895 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1931), 190. To be fair, after seeing Sargent’s portrait of Asher Wertheimer, Mumford wrote, “If I have ever said any harsh things about Sargent, I take them back.” Robert Wojtowicz, ed., Mumford on Modern Art in the 1930s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 103.

113. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, 8–9, 121.

114. See Didier Maleuvre, The Art of Civilization: A Bourgeois History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).

115. Olson, Sargent: His Portrait, 20.

116. Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent (New York: Abrams, 1994), 126.

117. Quoted in Olson, Sargent: His Portrait, preface.

118. Fry, “Ideals of a Picture Gallery,” in Reed, Roger Fry Reader, 268.

119. Woolf, Roger Fry, 230 (emphasis added).

120. Sirpa Salenius, Sculptors, Painters and Italy: Italian Influence on Nineteenth Century American Art (Padova: Il Prato, 2009).

121. Virginia Postrel, The Power of Glamour (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 2.

122. Postrel, Power of Glamour, 32.

123. John Singer Sargent, The Wyndham Sisters,

124. John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears,

125. Postrel, Power of Glamour, 85.

126. John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice,

127. John Berendt, The City of Falling Angels (New York: Penguin, 2006), 168.

128. Pamela later became a respected writer and poet, who, after the death of her first husband, married the British ambassador to the United States. The stories of the sisters’ lives are told in Claudia Renton, Those Wild Wyndhams (New York: Knopf, 2018).

129. Trevor Fairbrother, “Warhol Meets Sargent at Whitney,” Arts Magazine (February 1987): 67.

130. Artistic fascination with the American West became a significant movement in the 1880s, with the paintings and sculpture of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, the traveling shows of Buffalo Bill Cody, and the novels of Owen Wister and Zane Grey. Grey’s hyper-romanticized prose style, and paintings such as Remington’s, would in turn heavily influence the first Western films, particularly John Ford’s classic Stagecoach. This historical legacy demonstrates that, as in literature, romanticism did not vanish in the early 20th century but moved into corners of the art world where it was ignored or treated as unserious by the artistic establishment.

131. David Seidner, “Sargent’s Bloodlines,” Vanity Fair, November 1998,

132. David Seidner, Tanya Carlson,

133. David Seidner, Amira Casar,

134. Zuzanna Stanska, “Watch Nicole Kidman as John Singer Sargent’s Sitters,” Daily Art, May 29, 2017,

135. Zuzanna Stanska, “Watch Julianne Moore as Famous Works of Art,” Daily Art, July 8, 2018,

136. Claire Fallon, Meet the Painter Who Inspired Wonder Woman’s New Look, HuffPost, June 7, 2017,

137. Robert Emmet Long, James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 248.

138. Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 149; Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Filmcraft: Costume Design (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2012), 87.

139. John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloir,

140. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 89.

141. Oscar Wilde, Letter to R. Clegg, April 1891, in Hart-Davis, ed., Letters, 292.

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