Damn difficult subject. I don't know if I can do it. I'll give it a try.– Richard Ormond (quoting Sargent)
On Friday 8 June, Madeleine Thiele and I travelled to Broadway - the picturesque village in the Cotswolds that has been home to a colony of artists since the 1880s - to attend a talk on Sargent's 'Swagger and Struggle'. Presented as an 'in conversation' style event between artist and TV presenter Lachlan Goudie and Sargent historian Richard Ormond, the talk formed part of the Broadway Arts Festival, a yearly summer week long series organised by Karen Bloch which celebrates the village's rich creative heritage.
Karen was kind enough to set aside tickets for us to attend the sold-out event, so we are particularly grateful for her kindness and consideration.
Perhaps it was something about the shimmering summer light, or the worn brick buildings sprawling with ivy and a mossy patina that gave Broadway a palpable buzz that evening. The talk was sold out, so the energy radiated throughout Lifford Hall, with many of the attendees in lively conversation, reflecting Broadway's close sense of community.
As the inaugural talk of the festival, MP Margot James (also a local resident) gave a short introduction, claiming amusingly that she wished to fit the Festival's request that her summation be 'Nothing political, two minutes, quite enough!'. Karen Bloch followed with her introduction of the speakers.
Lachlan began by discussing that the general concept for the talk, in its title of 'Swagger and the Struggle', was the idea that fame and celebrity fell so easily to Sargent - in his lap, as it were. Richard Ormond called this 'art disguising as art' - it appeared effortless but he struggled, like everyone, and planned meticulously. I always get the sense that while many artists seem to happen upon their fame by their 'sheer genius' and 'celestial accident' - it is often those who keep it, like Sargent, who exhibit the more practical characteristics of planning, budgeting and time-keeping. Mundane, yes, but essential. Lachlan admitted to as much as an artist himself - it is never as easy as it seems.
Discussion fell naturally to Sargent's method of painting - the quick, feverish brushstrokes that marked his practice, learned from life in the studio by Carolus-Duran, his Parisian instructor. As an 'economy of means', as Richard describes it, Sargent never wastes a brushstroke. By contrast, Sargent as a person was unusually generous - often buying paintings and giving money to other struggling artists in his sphere, despite his level of success.
Eventually, various works of Sargent were displayed on screen behind the speakers, in order to incite discussion and humour. The Boit Daughters (who have just murdered the nanny - as Richard described it), Monet Painting in a Wood (Sargent pushing to be an 'heir of Monet', although he stays relatively figural, while Monet eventually dissolves into abstraction). Drawings in preparation for Madame X always raise sighs of pleasure from the crowd. Lachlan notes that Sargent wanted a bit of Virginie Gautreau's celebrity of beauty, while Richard notes he was drawn to her 'peacock' eccentricity.
Sargent and gender emerges - how can an artist, with a 'fear of intimacy', as Richard notes - paint such sensual female beauty, Lachlan asks? I sometimes struggle with this question, considering him from a queer angle, but also from the angle of an artist who espoused a kind of distanced, analytical nature with his subjects, for 'I paint what I see', is what he notes to Joseph Pultizer in 1904. In my thoughts, I think his status as a gay man contributed to his ability to capture the sensuality of women without veering too far into the voyeuristic or the derisive.
As a Scottish painter, it is unsurprising that Sargent's portrait of Lady Agnew, now in the Scottish National Gallery, makes her appearance. Lachlan notes that this work 'eroded his sense of his own talent' and that she comes alive with the 'thrill of living brushstrokes', sitting still only for a moment, as the rustling of her white silk gown settles into the chair. Richard notes that white was 'always Sargent's colour', because he is able to fill the basic flatness of a colour like white with tonal depth and variance. Lachlan calls him a 'painter's painter' for this skill, and is not surprised that this work established Sargent's career in England in 1893 - turning him into an overnight portrait sensation. Other 'symphonies in white', as I call them, are discussed in this fashion - the 'wild' Wyndham sisters being one of them. They always did look like a particularly fun sort of trouble.
Lachlan seems particular drawn to Sargent's watercolours, which he describes as an 'escape from the pressure of the commission business'. He recently did a video review of the Sargent watercolour exhibition at Dulwich (which you can watch here). For Lachlan, Sargent's watercolours 'touch on the borders of abstraction', noting him as a 'a painter of the hand and not of the mind' - he is drawn to the unfinished nature of some of these works, which give them an air of sensual mystery that is in no way unsatisfying. Richard responds by noting that this was, again, art concealing art - the blur found in his Venetian watercolours, for example, was an intentional part of his process and helped to convey the idea of Venice as a place where you can't tell where the 'water begins and the buildings end'. Richard later notes on Sargent's obsession with water and his drive to capture its shifting movement and light - his series of works by streams and rivers, often using Rose-Marie as his model, are well known.
Talk of Rose-Marie shifts to discussion of Sargent's war work, as Rose-Marie's death in a bombing in Paris was one of the contributing factors in Sargent's involvement in WWI. Gassed appears on screen, a work Richard describes as a one of 'reflection and empathy' and not documentary by design. For Lachlan, the war work is reflective of Sargent's skill in finding 'beauty in the destruction' of the war, as evidenced by the shimmering light in the fields, occasionally dotted with crashed planes, or youthful soldiers picking fruit in dappled orchards and vineyards.
The talk wraps with a brief evaluation of Sargent's work for the Boston Public Library murals, which Richard notes Sargent felt were his 'greatest contribution to art' and one of the 'highest artforms' - a nearly life-long process which required Sargent to reinvent himself as a muralist, sculptor, and interior designer.
What I've taken away from this talk - outside from the electricity and easy energy that passed between these two well matched speakers - is that we are often guilty of falling into the trap of history with Sargent. We look to his greatness and his meteoric rise as the result of pure genius - a veritable kiss of the gods. But Sargent, like anyone, was a man with a work ethic - though it appeared effortless, he struggled, and practiced and experimented and reinvented. We see the result, but not what got him there.
Lachlan's great contribution to this overarching analysis of Sargent is that he gave us the important view of this process as a working artist himself. He admitted often that he struggles with composition and process. Often when you see one great work of his, Lachlan notes, what you don't see is hundreds of discarded drawings that came before the final result appeared. At one point, Lachlan mentions that just a few days before he was in Dorset, attempting to capture a plein air scene, but struggled to seize hold of the 'freshness' of the light and landscape - something he felt Sargent was able to do. But an analysis of Sargent's early watercolour sketches when he was a young boy, now in the Met Museum, show that this was not always the case. He evolved, as we do, in his creative process - and this, I think, showed a human side to him that I do not often consider as a scholar of his work.
Richard's strength was that he used his encyclopaedic knowledge of Sargent as a factual counterpoint to Lachlan's lived experience. When Lachlan felt lacking in comparison to a Sargent, Richard was there to attest - no, Sargent struggled and felt these things too - whether it was in his worry that he was too 'beastly French' after the fall of Madame X, or the lack of sufficient material on the front in the war, where he sought in vain to find the right composition. 'Damn difficult subject, I don't know if I can do it. I'll give it a try', Richard proclaims as Sargent's motto, revealing both a sense of imposter syndrome we all share, but also his zest to defeat, which we should all strive for. I, for one, will give it a try.