A Yankee Portraitist In London

The fact that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a Yank didn't hinder his entree into London society. At the height of his career--about 1880 to 1907--Sargent was the most sought-after portraitist in England. His natural facility with paint was right up there with masters like Rubens, Hals and Manet--as the Sargent retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (through May 31), makes clear. (The show then travels to Boston.) Although born in Italy, the son of Philadelphians who'd moved abroad, Sargent always declared himself a true American. He returned to the United States for commissions, painting John D. Rockefeller and Isabella Stewart Gardner with the same oily meringue and flair for elongation that he lavished on the likes of the foppish Lord Dalhousie and the wincingly wasp-waisted "Madame X." Actually, "Madame X" (1884) was painted in Paris, where Sargent had studied. "X" was really Virginie Gautreau, and Sargent painted her in a low-cut gown with a thin strap slipped off her shoulder. Audiences at the official salon show gasped, so Sargent took her name off the title and repainted the strap upright. Then he left for London.

Sargent's troubles have been mostly posthumous. Critics lambaste him for being insufficiently modern; they also complain that he sucked up to wealthy idlers. But if we've learned the main lesson of modern art--it isn't what you paint, but how you paint it--this Sargent show is a tonic. It's filled with breathtaking bits of business, like the stroke that articulates a woman's hand on a fan in "Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children." The moves are made with the fearlessness that only inborn talent can bring. Sargent knew what he did best, worked very hard at doing it and succeeded professionally. Nothing could be more American.