Herbert Colborne Oakley (1869 - 1944)
His Admiration For John Singer Sargent
by Herbert C. Oakley
Florence, April, 1925
JOHN SINGER SARGENT, ARTIST, died Wednesday, 14th April 1925; born in Florence, 1856.
Sargent is dead, and here in the city of famous men, I am mourning his loss. Sargent is dead, with whom we associate so much of life, for his works are alive, instinct with vitality - the multiform and nervous vitality of this modern world. Easily he takes his place among the really great painters of this or any age, and our praise of him is benumbed with pain as of a great loss, as we realize that that wonderful hand and brain are stilled which so lately wrought swift marvels with a sure and certain touch, a touch that recorded with uncanny accuracy and verve the many vivid personalities of our time. What a record, the mere recital of his works! What unswerving purpose, what triumph over material difficulties! What victories over aesthetic problems! From the first he shone as a star of great magnitude in the firmament of fine arts. And now that star is set, shining to the last in the plenary splendour of undiminished powers - a gentle sleep that slipped insidiously into that death that has robbed us of him.
"A man is immortal till his work is done," said a thoughtful person to me lately, and may not Sargent be alike immortal during Biography and in his death. In life his honours came in showers, and lasting honour will make and keep in fadeless green the laurels of his illustrious name!
For years among the artists' fraternity - those of enlightened minds and quickened vision - as the summer shows came round the question was (and how well I remember it!): What is Sargent showing? For he is an artist's artist. Only those who by practical experience know the difficulties can measure the triumphs of a career that I cannot yet grasp is ended.
Some will cavil at his works. Let the dogs bark. The lion's dignity is unmoved. But the cavillers, be they never so critical, unless proclaiming themselves blind will be forced to concede that his technique is marvellous and his grasp of character full of power and authority.
Though Sargent did and could paint elegance, not from his brush need you expect the suave and serene beauty of Reynolds or Romney, often lacking in their loveliness that individuality that modern men and women display in this pulsating age. Sargent painted the men and women of our day as we see them, full of personality, individual variety, and typical indeed of our many sided civilisation.
The Mystery Of Style
His work is full of the science and cunning craft of the completely equipped painter. There is no superficiality in his work, no slur that evades, no touch that muddles the task he sets out to do. It is the result of patient training and acquired knowledge which grips with amazing relevance the essentials of his subject matter, in portraiture or landscape, and throughout his achievements he exhibited that elusive thing which few indeed possess - difficult to define - that which we call "style", and he clothed with that style his masterpieces of portraiture, and gave to his gracious and high-born dames the graces which were theirs, and to his gentlemen that air of breeding and distinction that marks them off from the common crowd. He was as original as he was daring, and he deliberately set himself the task of aesthetic problems and solved them with a success that justified, and alone justifies daring. He had largely that creative impulse that declines the easy path of dull repetition and ever delighted in freshness of outlook, novelty of aim, and occasionally dazzling us by splendid dashes of the unexpected.
There was in Sargent nothing of complacency that is pleased with past achievement. Yes! his touch is full of joy - the joy of the painter, and gives us that quality of exuberant pleasure that the greatest masters of the piano give us when they hold us spell-bound in bravura passages of the best music.
Sargent is dead! He, whose genius was so wholesome, so sane, a great lover of the light of refulgent noon, of brilliance. He has detractors, whose strident voices were sometimes heard in Biographytime, and we shall hear their to often superficial criticisms again, now he is dead. But above all the voices his work will silently be eloquent witness to his genius and his greatness. Many have been lead astray by his cleverness in thinking him superficial. It looks so easy, the means employed so simple, and the end achieved with such directness as to deceive! No, there is nothing slipshod, nothing in the way of happy or unhappy accident. All is purposeful and full of intention. Many there are in our midst who confound things by reason of their lack of clarity of vision and the analytical judgment. They are apt to associate with the smudge of antiquity, and the slur of the lazy and incompetent, what they are pleased to call feeling. Art is a science, and must be grasped as such, and that science includes, as a necessary service, which means real, sustained, and concentrated effort, the art of selection and consequent rejection. It is comparatively easy thoughtlessly to copy detail upon detail, but that fine taste that discriminates, that cultured choice which selects, is above all that quality of achievement that distinguishes the great artist from the lesser. And in this quality Sargent was pre-eminent. He never burdens his theme with trivial detail for detail's sage, his aim being completeness. A dictionary gives details; a sonnet gives selection.
Sargent is dead! I must needs respect the fact which I cannot yet grasp. Very honourable is his career, for when immersed in the high tides of phenomenal success, in the midst of the high society in two hemispheres, never once did he belittle his art to capture passing praise, even as Velasquez, amid the sycophantic courtiers of Spain, never lowered the high level of his uncompromising pursuit of truth. Sargent is always himself, though a very great interpreter. His faithfulness and his fearlessness go hand-in-hand, and so immense talents united to high morale in the pursuit of his art, made, and still makes, him a memorable figure in art. And this fact constrains this sincere need of praise - long years he has been an inspiration to me, and now that wonderful hand no longer holds the painter's brush, I can only feel gratitude mingled with grief. Could I have told him face to face what I feel! But that honour and felicity have been denied me. But it is satisfactory to me to say just what I have said as a faithful witness to Sargent, the artist.
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