One of the things that made John Singer Sargent a great painter was that he appreciated the limitations of painting. At least for two hundred years before he did his work, painting had not carried philosophical messages or meanings encoded in symbols but rather did what it was capable of doing, which is to show what things look like. Sargent has no symbolism, no iconography, only what people, particularly, look like in their faces and in how they dress and in their presentation. What Sargent gets from accepting that limitation is an attention to detail that allows him to pick up the telling detail that gives a picture drama even if not anything that could be called meaning.
Consider the painting that made Sargent name in America, the portrait he did of the socialite Mrs. Adrian Iselin. The story goes that Sargent rejected the dresses she had brought out so that he could select what she would wear and that he painted her in the black dress she had on, hardly a very glamorous or outstanding costume, and that the sour expression on her face was the result of that-- or maybe just the stereotypical angry old lady he wanted to present. But what Sargent remembered many years later about the sitting was how she held her finger, and if the viewer looks back at the painting, the single raised pinky finger does indeed convey drama to an otherwise ordinarily posed painting as well as, perhaps, an insight into a determined character. Out of such careful notice of and inclusion of a detail as well as in dramatic posings and in other matters, such as color or angle of attack, Sargent crafted portraits whose images linger in the viewer’s imagination. Sargent noticed and composed before he began to draw or paint.
Consider “Nonchaloir (or Repose)”. This is a picture of a languid woman with an interesting face, much fuller cheeks than is usually the case with Sargent. She is lying at an angle napping on a couch, the pattern of the couch repeated on a decorative apron on her dress, but the center of this monochromatic white painting is the sea of angles and folds of her voluminous dress. That is where the light goes, the viewer’s eye gradually drawn up from the dramatic nature of the multi folded and layered dress to the face and neck that emerges on top of it, as if that were added to the dress rather than the other way round, as if a dress were the natural way of being for a woman, a point also made by the fact that the woman’s chest is swathed in the same or similar swathes of whitish cloth as is her torso.
What to make of a face in repose? Her lips remain small and set, her eyes closed but the shape of them the same as if they had opened, her hair prominent in a Helena Bonham Carter way whether she is asleep or alert, all conveying the impression that she has not changed very much, not been transformed, by being unaware of the attention being paid to her. She is what she is, basically the same face and also, apparently, as equally comfortable or uncomfortable in her costume as if she were awake, though the dress remains a distraction from the face in either case.
That the woman in repose looks so much like what she would look like were she paying attention may be, of course, a tribute to the artistic conventions of the time that Sargent would not violate because it would be too shocking to show a respectable woman at all in an indecorous posture or costume, more “naturally” aligned with her body in, let us say, a nightgown that clung to her shape. Sargent will barely traffic with the indecorous in “Madame X”, and he caught hell for that, and that is also true of his other paintings, his female nudes made to be of Arab vintage, and his male nudes presented only in sketches, not in full scale paintings. Sargent is not out to break with convention, as was Courbet, who painted a vagina up close. He wants to remain, after all, someone who can get society commissions.
What happens when Sargent has a truly pretty woman to paint is also interesting. Though the question of how to judge which of his models is pretty does arise, my surmise is that Sargent goes all out to provide them with gangbuster dresses and various accoutrements to bring out their beauty by giving it an appropriate glamorous setting rather than having the beauty speak for itself, as if it did not need adornment. That is the case with Mrs. Charles E. Inches, who has a young face and a pleasing expression with barely a glint of a smile, so that she is a bit mysterious, her face interesting as well as pretty because of her clear eyed intelligence. She is dressed in a dark red velvet gown with a V neckline and bare shoulders. On her upper arm is a bow of the same velvet, which makes it a part of the dress though it is not connected. Around her neck is a delicate pearl choker that is very muted and in her carefully coiffed hair is a diamond pin, equally non-ostentatious, though clearly there as an ornament. All very tasteful and striking, hinting at wealth to which she is well assimilated and, as well, at least as risque a portrait as that of Mrs. Gateau, it more acceptable even if it shows as much skin, perhaps because of that bow. Little touches convey a lot.
The same principle holds for Mrs. George Swinton, another woman I would judge a beauty who sits for a portrait by Sargent. She is rosy cheeked and full lipped and has a fuller face than Mrs. Inches, whose face is an elongated oval. Mrs. Swinton is dressed to look very regal. Her hair, whose brown catches some reflected light and so a bit of a shine, is topped with a tiara as muted as Mrs. Inches diamond pin. She is dressed in a white gown that is made to look like a royal costume because it has an off white sash reaching across her bodice to her waist. The white of her dress poses a challenge to the artist who also gives her a cape which is pearl colored and so a contrast but not too much of one to the white of the dress. One hand is at her waist, while the other rests on a chair, in a pose that royalty might take up. So we have some evidence in this portrait for the old cliche that the Robber Barons had become the American version of royalty, though all that means is that they have adopted their fashions, not that sense of themselves.
A third example of how Sargent treats beauty is his portrait of Winifred, Duchess of Portland, whose face is quite oval and somewhat pale but, I think, still beautiful. Diamonds hang in strands below her bodice and are, again, non-ostentatious. Most striking is the Elizabethan stiff lace adornment behind her head, a far more interesting detail than her red cape. Her hands, each one ringed, hang straight down, and so do not provide the regal pose presented by Mrs. Swinton, though the lace may be enough for that. The drama of the picture is that the white dress hangs on her having folds enough but not as accentuated as they are in “Nonchaloir”, and so suggesting how thin she is, a point emphasized by the fact that she is standing next to a Greek column molding. Very elegant.
A word about dresses, which are the form of apparel that is ubiquitous with Sargent’s female subjects. The dresses seem cumbersome to walk around in even if they are attractive. The skirts are long and full, covering up the lower half of the body in layers and folds and straight lines that give you no knowledge of what is below the skirt of the dress while the shape of the top half of a dress acknowledge breasts even when they are totally covered. Dresses are so various that women individuate themselves through the dress they adopt and so the dresses are not costumes, which disguise people so as to make them other than they are. That is also different from what happens with men’s clothing, which are more like uniforms, men dressing alike, whether in tails or tuxedos or double breasted suits, the jacket and straw hat the common apparel for a type of turn of the century man.
A more general point. Sargent keeps to his sense of the purity of the discipline of painting, which is that it is not about ideas because ideas are, by their nature, invisible, and so best represented in language. All art does, when it tries to represent ideas, is reduce ideas to slogans or cliches because it does not have the flexibility of language. So if you want meaning, read Aristotle and Kant. On the other hand, if you want to know the complexity of how people look, or what it feels like to be in a scene from nature or from city life, then go to a painter. And if you want to ruminate on the complex relationship between the subject of the painting which, among other things, includes whether the person is aware or unaware of being an art subject; or ruminate on the painter who is caught up in, among other things, the conventions current in his medium and his own insight into his subject; or, third of all, if you want to ruminate on the perspective of the viewer, who is both entertained by the aesthetic arrangement of the picture and is also lured by the information the picture provides, then these three activities are enough to justify art criticism as itself a distinct discipline.