I’m writing this letter from the location of the old railway station at Lake O’Hara in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. This is where John Singer Sargent got off the train in 1916. There is a lot of curiosity about this artist. Sara and I are looking around to find a couple of the locations he painted. We’ve been talking about Sargent all weekend. Here are a few of Sargent’s early influences:
An easy-going and somewhat aloof father.
A supportive, culturally aware mother who also painted.
An unorthodox upbringing with a variety of experiences.
Travel and adventure at an early age.
A family with a degree of financial independence.
A family that valued culture, civilization, and society.
Early success, even as a child.
The capacity for imitation as an acceptable activity.
A sense of decency and modest self-esteem.
The ability to make and keep friends among superior people.
The ability to balance socializing with private time.
An acceptance of the value and virtue of dedicated work.
The habit of persistence to get what he wanted.
A sense of values outside the standards of society.
The last assertion may surprise you. Keep in mind that in later life he turned down a knighthood, the Presidency of the Royal Academy and the request to do the official portrait of the King of England. He also suddenly stopped taking lucrative portrait commissions in order to pursue his own directions.
With regard to imitation, his admiration of Velásquez is well known. In the academy of Carolus-Duran he appropriated the master’s style within weeks. He sometimes painted “in the style of Monet,” and from time to time painted “off style” in order, I think, to see if he could do that too.
PS: “It takes time to learn how to be really happy.” (J. S. Sargent)
Esoterica: In his portraits of Elenora Duse, Lady Sackville-West, and others, Sargent made many attempts to produce the effect he wanted, and rejected all. “He needed several chances to arrive at spontaneity.” (Carter Ratcliff)
This letter was originally published as “Character formation” on March 20, 2001.
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