John Singer Sargent

May 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: This year, first at the National Gallery in Washington, then at the Fine Arts Museum in Boston, Americans have had a chance to reappraise the lifework of John Singer Sargent, a fellow countryman who spent lived of his life in Europe.

Little Johnny Sargent, born in Florence, in 1856, grew up during the same decade that Walt Whitman published "Leaves of Grass" and Samuel Morse patented the telegraph. His American parents had escaped their green and raw homeland, looking for the old, the refined. The family traveled constantly from Italy to France, Switzerland, Germany.

One of his most beautiful and poignant oils is of a hotel room, his frequent address. He trained in Paris; was indebted to impressionism, especially to Claude Monet. Look at these beautiful pictures of flowers and the Italian light. It would be as a high society portrait painter that Sargent would achieve his renown.

Early, his provocative portrait of "Madame X," a wealthy American from New Orleans, caused such scandal in Paris that he was forced to move to London. I speak now of England in the 1880’s, of a Europe filling with wealthy Americans, making the grand tour, anxious to marry a title or at least learn how to read a French menu. America may have been formed in rebellion against Europe, but we Americans have long been haunted by the authority of the Old World.

To this day, Americans feel themselves embarrassingly young, as during the recent White House sex scandal. The common opinion was that Europeans are so much more sophisticated in matters of sin and guilt than we Americans.

Henry James, another American, was in London at the same time as Sargent. His theme: American innocence and European knowledge or cynicism. James and Sargent became friends. Perhaps each recognized himself in the other– two reticent, unmarried American men who moved through English society, but were not of it.

Here, the old master of commas and drawing room discourse casts an appraising eye back at the painter. The Gilded Age, which lasted roughly for the last three decades of the 19th century, saw the emergence of an American upper class, fortunes beyond comparison to the rest of the nation.

Only our own decade, the 1990’s, has seen the rich so extravagantly rich by comparison to the rest of the country. Sargent was a perfect painter for the Gilded Age. Several times he came to America, looking for clients.

The nouveaux riche had heard of his reputation in Europe, and they happily sat for him. These are the faces of very rich Americans at the end of the 19th century, when Americans were confident and insecure both, triumphant and yearning. In some paintings, the faces seem about to be swallowed by fabric.

In some, there appears an unease that may be more than physical. One of Sargent’s eeriest and most beautiful paintings is this portrait of the daughters of Edward Darly Boit, Bostonians living in Paris. Each of the girls seems alone in her life; the older girls retire into darkness. We learn from the museum catalogue that none of them ever married. By the early 20th century the market for society portraits went dry.

Sargent’s world began to fade. He was traveling again through Europe, and the world he saw around him was melting, as in these beautiful watercolors. Across the Atlantic, America was just beginning its great century. Europe, meanwhile, was entering its terrible century of germ warfare and nazi ovens and Stalinist purges and ethnic cleansing. By the end of the first World War, Sargent saw the young men of Europe wounded.

If there seems something dated about the work of John Singer Sargent, it is that he spent so much of his life painting a world that was doomed. The newly rich of America were busy posing as Europeans at precisely the time that America was in the ascendant.

These rich and these beautiful, so desperate for experience, ended up confused by history. Many would die far from home, as John Singer Sargent died, in London, in 1925, preparing for an exhibition of his work in the United States, a country he barely knew.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.