How John Singer Sargent made a scene

In 1893, Henry James wrote an essay praising his friend, the painter John Singer Sargent, in which he declared: “There is no greater work of art than a great portrait,” because of the empathetic vision it required. Sargent was remarkable, said James, for the “extraordinarily immediate” translation of his perception into a picture, “as if painting were pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling”. In particular, he admired Sargent’s “faculty of taking a fresh, direct, independent, unborrowed impression”. This admiration was widely shared: after seeing The Misses Hunter in 1902, Rodin called Sargent “the Van Dyck of our times”. But after Sargent’s death, his realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile, the work of a society painter, a careerist happy to pander to aristocratic privilege. One of the most successful and esteemed painters of his day was rapidly dismissed as virtuosic

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