NEW YORK, NY -- John Singer Sargent was a consummate virtuoso; a more prodigiously gifted painter has seldom lived. Upon seeing one of his portraits at an exhibition, Auguste Rodin called him “the Van Dyck of our time“ – an apt observation, since Van Dyck’s bravura paint-handling was undoubtedly one of the sources of Sargent’s technique.
Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to American expatriate parents who led an itinerant, Bohemian life among the cultural centers of Europe. His family moved easily in a small but cosmopolitan circle of artists, musicians, and literati. As a result, Sargent learned to speak four languages well and developed a charming social manner that made him welcome in drawing rooms everywhere.
His parents encouraged his interest in art, and as a young man he began to study in Paris with the portraitist Carolus-Duran. Carolus-Duran’s instruction was almost the antithesis of contemporary academic training. Rather than the lengthy process taught at the Royal Academy, which required making preliminary studies and laying down multiple layers of under-paint, he emphasized rapid execution directly on the canvas. Sargent enthusiastically embraced the expressive freedom of this approach. He also took time to travel to look carefully at the paintings of the old masters, developing a particular admiration for Velázquez, whose adroit brushwork and understated color harmonies became a lasting inspiration.
Sargent learned quickly, and became a successful portrait painter in Paris while still in his 20s. In the mid-1880s he moved his studio to London, where, if anything, he enjoyed even greater success. He had a natural talent for the society portraitist’s most valuable asset: the ability to create likenesses that were instantly recognizable and at the same time graceful and stylish. Many of his best works are in the grand manner – which, as Rodin observed, owes much to Van Dyck – showing the sitter in elegant dress in opulent surroundings.
Sargent’s Portrait of Louis Alexander Fagan, 1893, is an interesting example of an entirely different type of portrait: an informal image of a personal friend. Fagan was a curator of prints and drawings at the British Museum. He had been born in Naples to an Italian mother and an English attaché at the British consulate there. He spoke Italian as well as he did English, and his cosmopolitan childhood had much in common with Sargent’s, a similarity of background that may have formed part of the basis for their friendship.
Sargent shows Fagan, who was 48 when this work was painted, in a gray daytime suit and black cravat, his right arm slung over the back of his chair. The general impression is one of relaxed, alert intelligence. The muted palette is articulated with broad strokes of the brush that suggest an oil sketch, in which we can also see an echo of the portraits of Velázquez. This is a rare glimpse into a friendship, an intimate, personal portrait not only of the sitter, but of the artist’s private world.
A highlight of the September 17, 2020 auction of Important Paintings is John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Louis Alexander Fagan.