Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Obstinate Artists Who Stood Out By Following Tradition - John Singer Sargent

The reason for my choice of John Singer Sargent in the latest of this series of artists who successfully followed tradition and by doing so went against the trends of their time may surprise some. Many will assume that his style of naturalism spoke for the mainstream in art around the turn of the last century. But as we will see, he went against the mainstream and made his style dominant. By the time of his death in 1925, he was one of the most famous artists of his day. After his death, however, his work quickly fell out of favor, because he was not progressive or modern enough. For example, one of his most famous series of paintings, the wall paintings in the Boston Public Library entitled The Triumph of Religion, completed in 1919, was neglected and almost destroyed. and it is only in the last 30 years or so that his reputation as a great artist of the past has waxed once again.

When an 18-year-old Sargent chose a studio in which to draw and paint in Paris in 1874, he did not select the French Academy, which favored a strongly classical influenced style. Nor did he choose to follow the style of the emerging Impressionists, whose first show took place the same year. Rather, he looked back to the Baroque style of the 17th-century Spanish school, epitomized by the great master Velazquez.

J Singer-Sargent: Portrait of Rockefeller
To the modern eye, accustomed to the brutalizing ugliness of modern styles, these three options seem similar. Each is naturalistic and requires a high level of drawing skill compared to what is needed to graduate from the art schools of our universities today. However, there are three distinct worldviews behind them, and when one style finally came to dominate the art world - the loose-focused style of the Impressionists - it quickly devolved into the artistic forms of modernity that are intended to undermine and speak against traditional Western values.
First, consider the clean-edged and brightly colored look of the Academy, reminiscent of Raphael from the High Renaissance. This style had dominated the French Academy since Davide, Napoleon’s favored artist of the Revolution, introduced it. It is intended to represent the anti-Christian rationalism of the Continental Enlightenment, and, rejecting the need for Revelation in the search for truth and justice, identified itself with pre-Christian classicism. It sought also to identify the State with the grandeur and power of Imperial Rome.
Jules Lefebvre: Allegory of Victory, late 19th century French
There are paintings by artists who worked in this style depicting Christian scenes, such as those by Bouguereau, but as with all painting in which the content conveys a message in a style that is not suited for it, the result is a forced sentimentalism. The modernist descendant of this style is photorealism, in which every detail in a painting is represented in precise focus, and creates an image that overloads the senses with detail.
There is a re-emergence of the teaching of Academic method in a number of art schools and studios around the country today, mostly outside the university system. While it is a good thing that such skill in drawing and painting is being taught once again, it is unfortunate that it is this particular style, often referred to as “classical realism”, that is generally adopted along with it. We are starting to see paintings in this style appear in Catholic churches, in the mistaken belief that they are re-establishing Christian traditions.
As a reaction against this style in the mid-19th century, you have the Impressionists, who were just beginning to become dominant in Singer’s time, and whose work is so familiar today. The Impressionists claimed to look at a scene with radical disinterest. They did not see people, the sky and cows in a field, for example, but simply colors and light manifested by a single extended substance consisting of atoms and molecules. They tried to represent scenes so as to communicate this even disinterest, and in contrast to the neo-classical style, their paintings had no focus at all. There is an absence of sharp edges. In practice, the Impressionists were poor at applying their own ethos because they could not escape the fact that they were highly trained artists who almost by instinct composed paintings well. So the Impressionists were popular for the beauty of their landscapes which was manifested despite, and not because of their ethos.
Claude Monet: The Grand Canal in Venice.
A dividing line between these styles, one which balances idealism and realism as Christian styles ought to (as Pius XII described in Mediator Dei, 70 years later), is that of the Baroque of the 17th century. This is why Benedict XVI describes this, and not neo-classicism, as an authentic liturgical Christian style.
This is the style that Sargent decided to paint in. It was not the dominant style of the period, but there were a few who sought to re-establish it, including Sargent’s teacher, Charles Durand, known as Carolus Duran.
The baroque grew out of a Christian understanding of the world, in which there is a hierarchy of beings. So for a Christian, a person is not simply a collection of atoms but an entity that is distinct from other beings. When we look at any scene, we have more interest in some parts and less in others, and this uneven interest usually reflects this hierarchy of being, which we observe instinctively. So we look at people before animals and animals before plants; this places people highest. Furthermore, when we look at people, we look at those aspects that reveal to us their souls, that is, the eyes and the facial expression, and perhaps also a gesture that tells us what the person is doing or thinking. A Christian representation of these things, therefore, balances sharp edges and blurred detail, in order to focus on those elements that are of greatest interest to us naturally. Through this subtle variation in focus, metaphysical truths are communicated by visible signs embedded into the painting.
If you look at this painting of the Crowning of the Virgin by Velazquez, at first impression it seems sharp and clear, but close inspection shows how loosely he paints those areas that are not the main focus, and that the face of the Virgin is rendered in the finest detail. This draws the eye naturally to the point that he wishes us to focus on primarily.
This Christian balance of idealism and realism is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and Sargent, though a highly gifted artist, had to study for years in Paris before going to the Prado gallery in Madrid to copy every painting by the acknowledged master of the style, Velazquez. By so doing, he made this style his own.
Sargent’s motivation for adopting this style was not, to my knowledge, religious. It was based upon an aesthetic that viewed this style as superior to all others because he correctly saw that it reflected an accurate understanding of how we observe things around us. It is the Christian who adds that we do so because God made us to see signs of Him in His work. R.A.M. Stevenson’s 1895 book The Art of Velazquez describes the stylistic elements of the 17th-century artists as they were understood by those who used his style in the 19th century, such as Sargent. It is an excellent reference book for anyone today who wishes to paint in this style, but he never mentions the Christian origins of the underlying philosophy. Additionally, and confusingly, he calls this style “impressionism”, but he makes it clear that he is not describing the style of Monet et al.
Ultimately, this lack of identification of the neo-baroque style with Christian principles left it vulnerable to attack from the modernists in the 20th century. After all, I can’t defend the use of a style if I don’t know why I’m using it, beyond “I like it.”

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