Thumbs Down: Sargent; Thumbs Up: Bouguereau

John Singer Sargent and William-Adolphe Bouguereau are not normally considered together, yet their careers overlapped for several decades. In the ‘Undergrad’s Giant Book of Art History’ Sargent is counted among the progressives, while Bouguereau is thrown in with the anti-progressives–history’s losers (according to the Giant Book). Indeed, in many fables in the ‘Undergrad’s Giant Book of Art History,’ Bouguereau is cast as a key villain.

The Cleveland Museum of Art currently has a painting of similar size by each man, which invites comparison.

Thumbs Down: Sargent

During a large portion of his life, Sargent (American [although he spent most of his life in Europe], 1856-1925) was the most successful portraitist in the world. His fame today rests on numerous portraits of glamorous, high-society subjects, such as the one we are discussing. As he got older, he reacted against his earlier style and tacked toward Impressionism, although he never abandoned his earlier method entirely.

Sargent was renowned during his life, as now, for his bravura style. He is often compared favorably to Frans Hals, and others of this type–indeed, he is ‘King of Bravura,’ surpassing even his teacher Carolus-Duran in this regard.

Sargent’s reputation began to wane during his lifetime. Pissarro considered him a mere performer, for instance. Although his reputation fell from its once-lofty height, it was never extinguished, and, starting about 50 years ago, began to rise once again.  Today he is firmly embedded on the progressive side of the Art History Scorecard, as I [sarcastically] pointed out earlier.

Cleveland’s painting, Portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis, is a prototypical Sargent. The subject is the fabulously wealthy heiress to the Colt firearms fortune. The tone masses are simple and and handled with assurance. The ‘mighty brush’ fireworks are on display throughout.

Sargent's Portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis, 1898, 98” x 52”

Sargent’s Portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis, 1898, 98” x 52”

The painting looks brilliant in reproduction; much less so when seen face to face. On close inspection, the surface tone is dull and unappetizing. Sargent’s patented brush pyrotechnics look overwrought and hokey, lacking the deftness of, say, Hals or Velasquez. The face especially seems false and–surprisingly–labored. Part of the off-putting impression is due to the paintings large size. Effects calculated for an ideal viewing distance are false and jarring when viewed closely.

To make matters worse, the painting’s surface is badly marred throughout by pronounced cracks and fissures, which can be seen in the accompanying photograph. This is remarkable considering the painting’s relative youth, and the supposed directness of Sargent’s technique. Sargent was purported to use a simple mix of linseed oil, or stand oil, and thinner.

sarg-cracksSargent has exerted a tremendous influence since his time. Young artists and amateurs find his bravura brushwork irresistible. Every student show has a Sargent in embryo, it seems. Yet, his not inconsiderable achievements lay entirely in another direction. This painting demonstrates his tonal mastery: tones are close, simple,  and controlled with an iron fist–or brush. Like the other ‘bravura’ masters (Hals, Manet, Velasquez, Goya, and so forth), Sargent’s best paintings are arrangements of half-tones, quarter-tones, and blacks–especially the latter.


Thumbs Up: Bouguereau

Much of what I wrote about Sargent’s life could be repeated for Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905). For a large period of his life, Bouguereau was the most renowned artists in the world–famous and wealthy. The residue of this fame is still visible today in every museum in the US, from the modest Dayton Art Institute, to New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art–they all alike have Bouguereaus on display (even if hidden in out-of-the-way corners).

During the latter part of his life, his reputation fell dramatically, and after his death it was extinguished. Worse than forgotten, he came to symbolize the hated Academy–the arch enemy of  Impressionism and progress.

Bouguereau represented for the artists of the Impressionists’ generation an art that was out of touch with nature, that took its subjects from myth and religion, and that never left the studio. These charges were all–more or less–true. But so what? Within Bouguereau’s lifetime the sun set on Impressionism (except for amateurs and Sunday-painters where it lives on even now), and most of the same charges could be leveled at the Cubists. Indeed, Picasso would soon contemptuously dismiss another artist for being too influenced by nature.

Many of Bouguereau’s mythology-inspired paintings fall flat in a way that David’s do not. Like Ingres and emphatically unlike the mighty David, he was at his best when painting what was before his eyes, and less assured when contriving large myth-inspired compositions (although I rate his pictorial imagination higher than Ingres). And I still have trouble with his propensity for sentimentalism. But in genre paintings like Rest, his mastery is apparent. In his best paintings, Bouguereau is one of the greatest pure painters who ever lived.

Bouguereau's 'Rest', oil, 1879, 80” x 61”

Bouguereau’s ‘Rest’, oil, 1879, 80” x 61”

This timeless subject, a mother and her children spending an intimate moment resting, is completely sympathetic. The studio-posed figures are placed convincingly within the landscape, a landscape rendered with true feeling.

Rest is a painting of riveting beauty. The wealth of detail is astonishing yet the large plans and forms are never in danger of being overwhelmed by the staggering amount of detail. Each time I stand before this painting, I discover something new. Rest is remarkable for locking its abundant detail within the framework of the whole; nowhere does it break the harmony of the design. This is artistry of a very high order.

Look at this detail. Even this detail bears repeated study: each area is painted masterfully–details stay firmly in place and never detract but only add to the whole.


Did your eyes take in the wonderfully rendered cuff of the mother’s sleeve?

This painting, by the way, is in perfect condition. There’s not a single crack on it. I’ve read that his methods were suspect (it’s known that his medium was heavily varnish- and siccative-laden), but all of his paintings that I’ve examined are in excellent condition, as here. He was a master craftsman; this painting looks like it left the studio yesterday. Its near contemporary, Lisa Colt Curtis, looks decrepit.

Bouguereau  is poised to make a comeback (an easy prediction). In his genre paintings, like this one, his mastery is deep and rare. The ‘Undergrad’s Giant Book of Art History’ is due for an update.

Bouguereau loved–absolutely loved–painting, and by dint of indefatigable effort found the secret of the old masters: hard work! This quote will resonate with every true artist:

“Each day I go to my studio full of joy; in the evening when obliged to stop because of darkness I can scarcely wait for the next morning to come…if I cannot give myself to my dear painting I am miserable.” Bouguereau

[Photos are mine; paintings owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.]

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