‘No more paughtraits,” John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) wrote to a friend in 1907. Sargent was wry and honest. He was famous by then for his oil portraits of rich people. He’d done a thousand of them, starting with the Paris nouveau riche social climbers and then British aristocrats and American plutocrats.
He was a savant, famous at 25 for Madame X, and a wonderful, intelligent artist. At 50, though, he was sick of rich people. He’d grown wealthy himself — painting those portraits — but finally declared independence. He wouldn’t, he proclaimed, do any more portraits.
Well, yes and no. Yes, for the rest of his life, he didn’t do many portrait paintings. No, he never stopped doing portraits. The Morgan Library has a beautiful new show on Sargent’s late charcoal portrait drawings from around 1905 through the early 1920s. The drawings aren’t big. The cast is handsome men and elegant women, crisply done in thick charcoal with a minimalist background, sometimes heavy, vertical lines, sometimes next-to-nothing. Sargent’s figures almost always have a sense of presence. He was a master in oil and watercolor and, the exhibition demonstrates, black and white, too.
I’d seen the Portrait of William Butler Yeats, from 1908, off and on over the years. It’s gorgeous. Sargent loved depicting good-looking men. He shows them at ease, comfortably available. When I saw it at the Morgan Library with other Sargent drawings, the Yeats portrait looked very modern. Sargent gives us Yeats as the Edwardian “Arrow Shirt Man,” or a Yeats billboard. The drawing illustrated a book of Yeats’s poetry. It’s minimalist — Sargent did it quickly — and it’s also advertising.
I brought a prejudice to the show. Sargent did these portrait drawings, by and large, to avoid painting commissions. He pushed people off, I thought, by doing quick drawings rather than studio oils. The Morgan Library show proved me wrong but not by much.
There are lots of beauties in the show. The Portrait of Helen Vincent, from 1905, is flamboyant, all flounce, curls, and curves. She was an English aristocrat. In looking, I thought about Thomas Gainsborough, and Sargent was, after all, Gainsborough’s successor. She’s among the coy beauties in the show. The Portrait of Ellen Peabody Endicott, also from 1905, is a power picture. She was an American, the wife of Grover Cleveland’s secretary of war. She was from Salem in Massachusetts and a pure Yankee, from old Puritan stock.
You can look at the Endicott drawing in two ways. It’s austere. Sargent emulated Gainsborough, Anthony van Dyck, and Thomas Lawrence in his English charcoal portraits. His subjects are high style and they ooze elegance. They float like clouds. His American portraits owe the most to John Singleton Copley. They’re simpler and darker. Her clothes are architectural, built with layers of black lines, zigzagging and overlapping. Her face is inquisitive and plastic and charges forward. She floats like a battleship.
In looking at these drawings, I thought about what’s American about Sargent. Sargent thought of himself as an American, but he wasn’t born here. His father was a medical doctor from Philadelphia with enough backup cash to take his young family on a Grand Tour in the early 1850s. Early in the visit, Mrs. Sargent declared she was allergic to steam so, of course, she couldn’t travel on steamships, which meant she couldn’t go back home, and she never did. Sargent was born in 1856 in Europe. He came to America for the first time in 1877. He needed to claim American citizenship before he turned 21. Until then, the Sargent family moved from place to place, Paris, Venice, Biarritz, depending on the social season and how much money they had.
So Sargent was the perpetual tourist. He saw things in snippets and had a good sense for the essence of his subjects. Ellen Endicott was a tough old Yankee. The medium of charcoal — black, earthy, and gnarly — suited her well.
The exhibition has drawings of Winston Churchill, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon before she became the queen. There are a lot of formula drawings in the show, with a likeness and a pattern of thick horizontal as a backdrop. I think the show is great. It’s worth doing. Sargent, though, wasn’t into most of these drawings. They were a side line.
By 1900, Sargent was busy with the big religious murals at the Boston Public Library. Around 1905, he started what I call the “recumbent figure,” scenes of his friends lying on the ground outdoors. After doing so many portraits — busts or standing figures or seated — he liked the challenge of depicting people lying down. He was a war artist, too, painting watercolors of air-raid scenes. He did the art deco–style Museum of Fine Arts murals in Boston in the early Twenties. Some of the drawings in the show, such as the Portrait of Diana Manners, have a movie-poster look.
Sargent died suddenly in 1925. I was surprised to see how many of his subjects, like Manners, lived into the 1970s and 1980s. The drawings show at the Morgan Library is great. Is there a show on Sargent and cinema?