The Dial (Third Series)/Volume 75/The Wertheimer Portraits

The Dial (Third Series), vol. 75  (1923) 
The Wertheimer Portraits by Roger Fry



I WENT to see the Wertheimer portraits now on view at the National Gallery with some trepidation. I remembered so well seeing them as they appeared year by year on the walls of the Royal Academy. I remembered the chorus of praise with which my fellow-critics greeted them. I remembered some of the acid and disobliging phrases with which, in my youthful fanaticism, I had denounced them, and I wondered whether, when once they were enshrined in the National Gallery, I should be compelled in honesty to say that I had failed to recognize a great master in the dawn of his triumph or whether I should find myself once more a solitary Devil's Advocate. Either alternative seemed to me disagreeable. However, the sight of them relieved me of apprehension. I saw that I had been both right and wrong, and I saw that the dispute between my fellow-critics and myself arose from a misunderstanding of the meaning of the words we used. I felt then that what I had said was substantially true; that when I said that Mr Sargent was "our greatest practitioner in paint" I had very nearly hit the mark. But if I had been right from a purely aesthetic standpoint I had none the less been wrong in pedantically insisting on that in exhibitions of what ought to be regarded as an applied art. I had used "practitioner in paint" as a term of abuse, comparing it with the honourable title of artist. I had failed to see that just as there is need both for pure and applied science so there is need for both pure and applied art, and that the art of Mr Sargent is eminently and entirely of the latter kind. It is art applied to social requirements and social ambitions. I see now that this marvellous series of portraits represents a social transaction quite analogous to the transactions between a man and his lawyer. A rich man has need of a lawyer's professional skill to enable him to secure the transmission of his wealth to posterity, and a rich man, if he have the intelligence of Sir Asher Wertheimer and the luck to meet a Sargent, can, by the latter's professional skill, transmit his fame to posterity.

And as we must suppose that it is in the interests of society that a rich man's wealth should be duly transmitted to his heirs, so we may admit that Sir Asher Wertheimer was likewise conferring a benefit on society, both now and in centuries to come, by transmitting his personality and his entourage. Viewing the whole matter, then, in this historical perspective and throwing over as irrelevant the purely aesthetic point of view, I can see and rejoice in Mr Sargent's astonishing professional skill.

We praise a great doctor though he has added nothing to the knowledge of truth, and we should praise a great applied artist though he has given us no new glimpse of beauty. Therefore, although Mr Sargent is already more fully represented than any living and almost any dead artist in our national collections, I for one welcome the bequest by which the National Gallery becomes the trustee of Sir Asher Wertheimer's fame.

I see that this record of the life of a successful business man of the close of the Nineteenth Century has a profound historical interest. It was a new thing in the history of civilization that such a man should venture to have himself and the members of his numerous family portrayed on the scale and with the circumstance of a royal or ducal family, and I see that Mr Sargent has quite peculiar and unique gifts for doing what both his patron and posterity required of him, and that such gifts are by no means common and deserve the fullest recognition.

For Mr Sargent was a brilliant ambassador between Sir Asher Wertheimer and posterity. He managed on the one hand to give these family portraits the sort of decorative splendour and éclat which puts them in line with the princely portraits of the past and which gave just satisfaction to his patron, and yet—and this is surely a supreme merit—he has never flattered him or his family. They are all seen with an almost coldly dispassionate and terribly observant eye. There they are on just the particular social eminence to which they had attained, and not altogether without traces of the meritorious effort of attainment. I used to imagine some trace of irony in Mr Sargent's work. I think I was wrong: he is too detached, too much without parti pris for that. But that detachment has enabled him to miss no fact that might have social significance, so that the record of his observations lends itself, if one chooses, to an ironical interpretation. It requires rare gifts indeed to make such a record—a keenness of eye, a skill of hand, and a transparent honesty of purpose that do not often occur to this degree. The record is indeed so well made that it will always be legible, and what is to be read therein will have an ever increasing historical interest.

To ask to have besides all this works of art is to be too exacting. Indeed, it is asking almost an impossibility. No man who was mainly an artist could have, so to speak, "delivered the goods." No artist could have treated one after another of all these members of the family with almost equal success, with such certainty of keeping to standard. His sensibility would have led him, here into some more penetrating and curious inquiry, there it would have been rebuffed altogether. From an artist, questions of composition and design would demand more anxious research. He could not have been satisfied as Mr Sargent was with a mere general adequacy of presentment. Questions of quality would have held him up, made him repeat passages again and again and, perhaps in the search for some more intimate expression, made him lose all that freshness and élan which never deserts so competent a performer as Mr Sargent.

Mr Sargent has not the distinctively artistic vision—he has, one might say, no visual passion at all, scarcely any visual predilections—he has rather the undifferentiated eye of the ordinary man trained to its finest acuteness for observation, and supplied with the most perfectly obedient and skilful hand to do its bidding. But his values are never aesthetic values; they are the values of social and everyday life. Naturally, such a vision would never force a man to discover the means by which to record its experiences, and here comes in the connexion between applied and pure art. For, just as the man of applied science, having no particular passion for truth, applies the results, discovered by those who have, to some ulterior social end, so Mr Sargent has known how to use for his purposes the discoveries of pure art. And he was not only very skilful in seeing what could be of service, but very fortunate in what lay to his hand. For the dominant influence when he was a student in Paris was Manet. Now, Manet was very intensely an artist, an artist who had a passionate feeling about certain oppositions of tone and colour, and who felt these oppositions in such a way that he had to discover a very abrupt and frank way of stating them. He consequently invented a peculiarly straightforward and concise technique. It was this technique which Mr Sargent had the quickness to see be turned to quite other purposes, namely, to the rapid and incisive statement of the main facts of representation For Manet certain relations of tone and colour had a definite aesthetic significance; for Mr Sargent they were merely means to effective representation.

From Manet, too, he picked up ready-made, as it were, certain colour harmonies—a chord of salmon pinks, oyster greys, and celadon greens to which he added, as a kind of universal medium, certain cool brown notes. This chord in all its varieties is adequate to his purposes, but he never shows in his statement the positive conviction of a passionate apprehension. It is part of the generally decorative effect of his presentment. Such, as I understand it, is the art of Mr Sargent, a felicitous application of means to an end quite different from that for which they were originally discovered.

I see that one of my fellow critics says that Mr Sargent has ascended Parnassus so high that all can see him. T think he has got wrong in his topography. It is not Parnassus that Mr Sargent has climbed, but another mountain which frequently gets confused with it when viewed at a distance. This mountain has not yet been named. It is very high and has the advantage of never being lost in cloud as Parnassus frequently is. A number of very celebrated artists sit there, and Mr Sargent takes his place on it perhaps not a very long way below Frans Hals, Van Dyck, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

If only this mountain could be properly named much confusion would be avoided. I for one should not have had that long misunderstanding with my fellow critics in the early years of this century. Moreover, it would save a painful feeling of injustice which rankles unnecessarily in the hearts of many artists. It ought to be as clearly understood in art as it is in science that those who profess the applied branches of these studies have a right to ten times the salary and far higher honours than those who are obsessed by the love of truth and beauty. The latter must also accept the fact that those who are as pre-eminent in applied art as Mr Sargent, may gain, besides present wealth and fame, almost as much posthumous glory as the true Parnassians.

Courtesy of the National Gallery, London


Courtesy of the National Gallery, London


Courtesy of the National Gallery, London