Posts Tagged ‘ Mark Twain ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 3)

The Childish Longing for Protection and Belonging

There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody,
that she could join with to go away. For now she admitted
she was too scared to go into the world alone.
The Member of the Wedding

In her unfinished autobiography McCullers tells of an incident in June 1940 shortly after she had moved to New York with the money that Houghton Mifflin paid her for the publication of her story “The Heart” (and anticipating payment for her soon-to-be-published first novel). She had long been desperate to move out of the squalid one-family house she and her husband Reeves McCullers shared with eight other people in Charlotte. But their marriage was already in such a state that when the good news came, instead of going together, Reeves accepted an invitation to sail with a friend to Nantucket, while Carson rode to New York alone on a bus. She took lodging in a cheap boarding house on the West Side and was still there when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published on June 4.

That month her editor at Houghton Mifflin telegrammed her an invitation to lunch at the Bedford Hotel. Pleased to finally enjoy a social occasion she bought a new dress just for the meeting. As it happened, staying at the same hotel was Erika Mann (Thomas Mann’s eldest daughter, to whom McCullers had written requesting an interview in connection with a story she planned about a Jew from Germany). After lunch, while McCullers was in Mann’s room, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach entered. McCullers neither knew the Swiss heiress and literary dilettante, nor was she expecting her. But that day would begin an intense (but not sexual, at least not consummated, according to McCullers) short-term intimacy between the southern precocious naif in a failing marriage and the liberated, world-traveling gay sophisticate who had been addicted to morphine since she was 18. The relationship would survive Reeves’s abusive jealousy, Carson’s excessive dependence, Annemarie’s commitments to asylum’s and suicide attempt and even the latter’s escape first to Africa and then to Switzerland. (Reflections in a Golden Eye is dedicated to Clarac-Schwarzenbach, and Clarac-Schwarzenbach was planning to translate it.) Switzerland is where she died, however, in a bicycle accident on a mountainside. But what is important for this discussion is not the subsecquent relationship, but simply is the very moment the two met. McCullers describes it as something like an emotional singularity. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me to the end of my life, beautiful, blonde, with straight short hair. There was a look of suffering on her face that I could not define.” She immediately thought of Prince Myshkin’s experience meeting Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—which brought him a sensation of “terror, pity and love.”1

A moment like that, filled with the agitation of intense emotional excitement together with the vague suspicion of its potential for chaos and ruin, is at the heart of McCullers’s fourth novel.

[Part 1 of this series is found here; Part 2 can be read here.]

The Member of the Wedding (1946)

19442 was a disruptive year for 12-year-old Frankie (Frances) Addams. Her best friend had moved away to Florida. Her slightly older friends would not let her join the club they formed. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.” She was growing at an alarming rate. And she had become a criminal after she stole a three-way knife from the Sears and Roebuck. But that was not all. She took her father’s pistol and shot it in an empty lot. She committed a “secret sin” with Barney MacKean in his parents’ garage, and she hated him for it and wanted to kill him. These things made her afraid, first of the law, and then of her father, and then of not belonging to anything. The summer was lonesome and hot. “Every day she wanted more and more to leave the town to light out for South America or Hollywood or New York City. But although she packed her suitcase many times, she could never decide on which of these places she might go, or how she would get there by herself.” So she spent her time hanging around the kitchen and being “too mean to live.”

We learn all these things from the narrator, who tells them in desultory manner, merely as background to what takes place mainly during a three-day period in August and its aftermath seen on one afternoon three months later. And mostly what takes place happens around a cheap table in a kitchen whose walls are marred by the drawings of children and inside one of those walls we occasionally hear the scratchings of a rat.

At this table are always the same three characters. In addition to Frankie, there is the African-American cook/housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown, and Frankie’s six-year-old cousin, John Henry West. This trio is very similar to one we encountered in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the five main characters in McCullers’s first novel, 14-year-old Mick Kelly, occasionally is found in the kitchen with her younger brother, George (“Bubber”) Kelly, and the black cook, Portia Copeland. Mick and Frankie, though two years apart in age, are somewhat alike. Both have some creative inclinations: Mick is obsessed with music; Frankie, though she gave it up that summer, used to write “shows” that were performed under a tree outside. (Carson McCullers herself, when she was a child in Georgia, studied piano and wrote plays that her siblings performed for the family.) Both had unpleasant first sexual encounters (although Frankie reacted much more violently than Mick). Both are out-of-sorts, trying to figure out how they fit into the world. Both long to travel north, to see snow, and to become famous and important. Bubber Kelly and John Henry both look up to the young protagonists, and while they both play important roles in the plot at the end, their roles before then are quite limited, not much more than accessories. The two cooks are also very similar. Both are something like a mother or older sister substitute. In the first novel Mick’s mother is too busy running the boarding house to have much interaction with her and her older sisters ignore her; in the second Frankie’s mother had died in childbirth and Frankie is an only child. Both cooks have experience with marriage. Portia is currently married to Honeyboy, whose involvement in the plot is so limited that we never know his last name. Berenice has been married four times; the first time to a loving and respectful man, Ludie Freeman, who treated her well. He once bought her a fox fur stole, which she still had. He took her to Cincinnati where they saw snow and where they lived for nine months. Ludie made a decent living there as a brick mason. (Note his name and the place Berenice keeps returning to in her memories. Frankie is not the only one who is confined in Georgia.) The rest of Berenice’s husbands were one worse than the other, as she puts it. The last one put out her eye, and now she wears an odd blue glass eye. In both cases the cooks provide the conservative, common sense, “adult” point of view. Portia is more grounded in mainstream religion (the gospel of submission as her father sees it). Berenice relies on known sayings to guide her life, and she is less mature and accepting than Portia. She is often combative and frequently butts heads with Frankie. The two also spend Sunday evenings dressed in their finest, promenading about town with two men: in Portia’s case her husband Honeyboy and her brother; in Berenice’s her gentleman caller, T.T. Williams (the owner of a restaurant but “he and me is just good friends,” Berenice says), and her brother Honey. In both cases the brother becomess caught up in the racist legal system.

The points of comparison are true but largely irrelevant because The Member of the Wedding is not a narrative in the way The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is but rather, in essence, something like a philosophic dialogue. But unlike, say, Hume or Berkeley, the dialogue is not built on a scaffold of intellectual steps. Nor is it even like the overheated set piece dialogues throughout Dostoevsky’s major novels. At times it reaches for Buber’s idea that dialogue confers meaning by uniting the participants into one,3 but at others it descends to talking over each other’s head as in Chekhov’s plays or even into outright outbursts or altercations. MacDowell describes this dialogues thus:

“When Frankie and Berenice talk philosophically and with deep emotion, one sometimes hears dynamic dialogue as the women clash with each other and alternately reveal the anger and the tenderness they feel for each other. More often, however, one hears a rising antiphony in which one woman speaks, the other speaks in a contrasting tone, and finally the two join to achieve unified utterance, sometimes revealing a deep accord, sometimes a frustrating inability to communicate. In these antiphonal scenes, the two women do not necessarily speak to each other or to John Henry. Rather each speaks aloud to herself or to a vaguely conceived and undefined audience, which may or may not include he other two people present.”4

McCullers herself described the contributions of the three participants as “fugue-like parts.”5  (She was discussing the work as it had been translated by her into a play that had a long run on Broadway, but the approach to the dialogue was the same.) By that I think she meant that, as with a fugue, the two (and sometimes three) voices sometimes create a harmony, sometimes are heard in unison, frequently produce counterpoint and at some points create a cacaphony. Where the metaphor fails, however, is that the two (or more) statements made by the voices in a musical fugue are essentially the same (with certain changes permitted by the rules of fugal writing) simply begun at different times. So in a fugue the effects created by the different voices are inherent in the statement itself when played against different parts of itself. But that’s not how the dialogue worked in this novel (or the later play).

The points of view of Frankie and Berenice are diametrically opposite. Most of the attention of the story is on Frankie so the novel is often described as being “about” alienation, specifically adolescent alienation. While it is certainly true that Frankie is out-of-sorts and that she is constantly brooding about how she doesn’t belong or is unconnected to the world, Berenice has the opposite complaint. She believes she is fixed by the racist structure of society, trapped in her position and cares and wishing only to “burst free.” She doesn’t reveal this to Frankie at first, but it informs all of her advice to her and also all of her criticisms and disparagements of her. But until the last Friday in August, the two just talked past each other “their voices saw against each other, saying the same words,” as this conversation when Frankie’s cat ran away:

“‘If only I just knew where he has gone.’

“‘Quit worrying yourself about that old alley cat. I done told you he ain’t coming back.’

“‘Charles is not alley He is almost pure Persian.’

“‘Persian as I is,’ Bernice would say. ‘You seen the last of that old tomcat. He gone off to hunt a friend.’

“‘To hunt a friend?’

“‘Why, certainy. He roamed off to find himself a lady-friend.’

“‘You really think so?’


“‘Well, why don’t he bring his friend home with him. He ought to know I would be only too glad to have a whole family of cats.’

“‘You seen the last of that old alley cat.’

“‘If only I just knew where he is gone.'”

And then on that last Friday6 in August that ends Frankie’s “scared Spring” and her “green and crazy summer,” Frankie’s brother, Jasper, who had been serving in  the U.S. armed forces in Alaska, came home on leave and brought with him his fiancée, Janice, who lived in Winter Hill, 100 miles away. They stayed for lunch, brought Frankie’s father a bottle of liquor and Frankie a china doll, invited the two to the wedding to be held on Sunday in Winter Hill and then returned by train. Frankie had not expected much (except a present from Alaska) when she heard they were coming, but when she saw them, she was transfixed. As she was coming into the living room she first was startled by the quiet, for Jarvis had turned off the radio in the kitchen which had been playing all summer, night and day, providing a background noise of sweet jazz and war news that everyone had grown accustomed to. When she saw the betrotheds, however, she received another, bigger surprise: “She stood in the doorway, coming from the hall, and the first sight of her brother and the bride had shocked her heart. Together they made in her this feeling that she could not name. But it was like the feelings of the spring, only more sudden and more sharp. There was the same tightness and in the same queer way she was afraid.” It was the same emotion that McCullers herself describes erupted in her when she met Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.7 This moment would animate the next two days with meaning and terror.

After the couple left to return to Winter Hill, Frankie would brood about the encounter. As the trio played cards at the kitchen table, Frankie repeatedly asked Berenice for her impressions of the couple and her conduct. Berenice at first teased her sarcastically by saying she was “jealous” of her brother. But Frankie could not let it go. All afternoon she returned to the subject until Berenice, out frustration or spite, taunted her by repeatedly saying “Frankie got a crush! Frankie got a crush! … On the Wedd-ing!” Unable to take the mockery Frankie picked up a kitchen knife, much alarming Berenice, but she again taunted Frankie into throwing it. “The empty house seemed to be waiting. And then there was the knife whistle in the air and the sound the blade made when it struck. The knife hit the middle of the stairway door and shivered there. She watched the knife until it did not shiver any longer.” The act calmed Frankie, but Berenice could not let the hostility end. “You are not fit to live in a house.” And here Frankie revealed a resolve instantaneously formed at that moment by instinct. “I won’t be living in this one much longer.” Berenice again scoffed at her, asking where she was going. Frankie replied with a sudden resolve: “I’m going to Winter Hill. I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back her any more.” The seriousness, and suddenness, of this resolve, is emphatic.

“She had not been sure that she would throw the knife until it struck and shivered on the stairway door. And she had not known that she would say these words until already they were spoken. The swear was like the sudden knife; she felt it strike in her and tremble. Then when the words were quiet, she said again:

“‘After the wedding I’m not coming back.'”

One of the remarkable talents of McCullers is her ability to show the inner world of a character by his actions. Not simply by a single act but by a pattern or sequence or repeating motif. What her characters think is usually revealed, even to them, in what they do. (This insight is consistent with, as I understand them, current neurological findings.) This is not an adolescent trait, but rather she applies it to all alike. It is perhaps one reason that some critics have called her work “clinical” or “cold” or her characters “freaks” or “unrealistic.” Like everyone else book reviewers and literary critics react to challenges by denying their validity.

Once Frankie articulates the way she intends to resolve the conflict that has been building within her, she experiences great relief. She now understands “connectedness.” The same sense of belonging that she sees others have, she now finds in her connection to her brother’s marriage. The betrotheds are, as she puts it, “the we of me.”  When she joins the marriage she will be complete. The thought grew within her all night, even after Berenice left, until it became a twin certainty within her—a certainty that it would happen and a certain that it was meant to happen. “At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together. And finally, after the sacred spring and the crazy summer, she was no more afraid.”

Like all who discover the thing that truly completes them (whether it is god or ideology or movements or a lover or the Truth), Frankie became an immediate enthusiast. And all enthusiasts become evangelists.8 So Saturday, the day before the wedding, Frankie ventured into the town, not circumspect and quiet like she used to, but with a new confidence and, more importantly, a desire to tell everyone of her new determination. And like many who have begun a new life after a revelation, Frankie took on a new name. She now called herself F. Jasmine, so that she could share the Ja- of Jarvis and Janis. Everything about her and everything around her was new.

Her day began with her father at breakfast. She no longer felt the resentment that began last spring; she even felt tenderness towards him, for she realized he would be lonely without her. Outside, the children foolishly trying to dig a swimming pool (whom she no longer led during this year of dissatisfaction) awakened in her a sense of nostalgia, as did the scattered evidences of her childhood which she regarded with the eye of one who would never see them again. When she reached town, her view of the place was not now colored by her desperate desire to escape. Instead, as though she were a traveller who stopped in this one town for only a day, she took in everything with much interest. She was especially attracted to the people. She looked at them directly in their eyes. And with everyone she felt a “connection.” She wanted to tell each of them how she was about to be a member of the wedding. And she went looking for people to tell, from the Portuguese manager of the Blue Moon (the seedy bar/flophouse that catered mostly to the servicemen from the army base nine miles outside of town) to a man operating a tractor as part of a crew laying tar on a road, who she ran along side of, cupping her hand around her mouth ro amplify her voice over the noise of the tractor. No one disputed her claims. Indeed, no one seemed to have much of a response at all. All of this F. Jasmine took as confirmation of her membership and the proof of her connection.

By mid-day she circled back to her father’s shop near the Blue Moon Café, where she learned that John Henry’s great-uncle Charles had died. Since his death had nothing to do with the wedding (he was not a blood relation of her or her father), she gave it no thought beyond expressing the pity of it. More importantly, she got permission from her father to buy a wedding outfit, although it was at the local clothing store where he had a credit line. Having to buy a wedding dress at a cheap local store annoyed her, but it was a minor annoyance all things considered.

On leaving her father’s shop, F. Jasmine heard the sounds of the monkey man whom she had not seen all summer. She went to find him for it would be her last visit with the man and his darling monkey, both of whom she had grown fond of over the years. But when she located him, a soldier was quarreling with him and shoving a fist full of money his way. He was evidently trying to buy the monkey, who was cowering on the ground away from both. F.. Jasmine came closer, and the monkey quickly climbed up her and perched on her shoulder where the monkey man was able to snatch him and disappear, leaving F. Jasmine alone with the soldier. After an awkward exchange the drunken soldier led the bewildered but intrigued 12-year-old back to the Blue Moon Café, where he bought her a beer and persuaded her to return at nine that night so that they could go dancing. On the way home, after buying her wedding dress, F. Jasmine passed an alley. Out of the corner of her eye she glanced a “half-seen thing”—an apparition of her brother and his fiancée. It was an alarmingly real image, so much so that she had to slowly turn around to look again, even though she knew that the two were 100 miles away. But when she brought herself to look, she saw nothing except two “colored boys,” one with his arm on the other’s shoulder. It surprised her, and she contemplated it the whole way home.

Once home, John Henry and Berenice were in the kitchen and informed her they also would be attending the wedding because John Henry’s parents had to make arrangements for Uncle Charles’s funeral. That his new arrangement might encroach upon F. Jasmine’s wedding caused her to display her annoyance, which set off another round of hostile exchanges. Berenice grilled her about her morning, then belittled her not only for her plans but mostly for telling strangers about them. F. Jasmine had wanted to tell Berenice about the soldier, but each time she was about to begin, something warned her off. The exchange reached a climax when Berenice demanded to know what she would do if the couple refused her. She would kill herself, F. Jasmine said defiantly, with her father’s pistol.

At dinner the conversation took on a different tone. Berenice began something like an ode to love, or at least the virtues of having a beau. F. Jasmine for the first time listened to such a talk. Previously she had never believed in love. But she balked when Berenice turned the conversation to F. Jasmine having a beau, particularly Barney MacKean. But with fits and starts, interrupted by the unresolved scales of a piano tuner in the distance, they eventually transcended the particular and began talking not only about universals but also to each other. Berenice told of her vision for a better world—one where there were no colored race, where everyone was the same and one family; a world where there was no war, no bodies hanging from trees and no armies of young people leaving in uniforms; and no hunger. “No killed Jews and no hurt colored people. No war and no hunger in the world. And finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.” F. Jasmine and John Henry added their fine tuning. Then F. Jasmine told of her apparition which turned out to be two boys in an alley. This launched Berenice into a narrative of how each of her husbands was introduced by a similar apparition out of the corner of her eye, like Frankie’s. What she wanted Frankie to learn was that this all came from inside: “I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.” F. Jasmine lingered in the doorway, because she knew this would be the last conversation they would in the kitchen, or perhaps anywhere. Yet she could not express what troubled her and what her aspirations were. Instead, she began marching about and speaking in a jumbled way, “but they were the wrong words, not what she had meant to say.” Berenice grabbed her and pulled her onto her lap and then began the last “queer conversation”:

“We are all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and burst free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.”

She explained how she, as a black woman, was especially trapped. She was caught like everyone else and “they down drawn completely extra bounds around all coloured people.” But the problem is universal:

“The point is that we all caught. And we try in one way or another to widen ourself free. For instance, me and Ludie. When I was with Ludie, I didn’t feel so caught. But then Ludie died. We go around trying one thing or another, but we caught anyhow.”

The conversation made F. Jasmine “almost afraid.” John Henry needed comfort as well and tried to hang onto Berenice from the back of the chair. F. Jasmine saod that when she looked at people she saw them “loose” and while that is almost the opposite of “caught,” she said they meant the same thing. “I mean you don’t see what joins them up together.” She agreed with Berenice that there was birth and death, but “what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.” There was silence for a few moments. Then F. Jasmine uttered what was on her mind while they were all close together, touching, for the very last time: “Here we are—right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. and it will never come again. Never in all the world.” And a moment later all three began to cry.

And that was the last of their kitchen conversations.

The final fifth of the book follows the transformation from F. Jasmine to Frances during the approximately 30 hours from Saturday evening to early Monday morning with a final view of the result one afternoon in October. Unlike the rest of the novel, this is not an exploration of her interior monologue, for she does not engage in introspective thoughts. Since she has finally begun to act, she is forced to make decisions not based on rational plans, but rather by improvisation, because she never considered things realistically, never considered what others might do or thing, never doubted for a moment that her impulsive desire would come to fruition and solve all the unresolved longings and conflicts that buffeted her.

The night began with a trip to Sugarville, where Berenice’s mother, Big Mama, and her brother, Honey, lived. F. Jasmine would ask for Big Mama to tell her fortune by reading her palm. John Henry tagged along, wearing one of the costumes F. Jasmine had given him (because she would no longer need childish things). They passed the penitentiary, and John Henry heckled a prisoner looking out from behind his barred window. When they arrived F. Jasmine made John Henry wait outdoors, while she heard the fortune she only half believed. Outside again they talked to Honey as he was on his was to Forks Falls and his own destiny. When F. Jasmine reached the town again, she made John Henry go home. But “as she watched him going away from her down the crowded street, she felt a hollow sorriness—he looked so babyish and pitiful in the costume.”

Then came her encounter with the soldier, which proved a formidable challenge to her self-reliance and left her terrified of the consequences. Then the next day brought the tedious bus ride to Winter Hill, the prelude to the wedding where she was treated as an inconsequential child, the wedding itself, which she finally ruined, the miserable bus ride home, and then the fulfillment of the threat, when she set off at night with her father’s pistol. It will end again at the Blue Moon.

These scenes contain a sense of terror and humiliation that often mark plot turns or character revelations in Dostoevsky, but McCullers employs none of the melodrama. Her writing is perfectly measured and expository. In fact, when something surprising takes place anywhere in the novel, the narrator will take pains to explain it or relate it to something more ordinary. We are not to take any of it as out of the ordinary, much less entertaining; it is all simply more scenes of the human comedy.

Three months later we see Berenice and Frances (as she now is) in the late afternoon. Everything has changed. The kitchen has been painted over, and the furniture, except for the kitchen, is gone, because Frances and her father are to move the next day. Berenice will not be going because she has decided to marry T.T. But there is another reason—Berenice has been inalterably changed. She has seen John Henry die in great agony from meningitis in the course of a week. She is haunted by the last thing she said to him that he understand: “Run along for I don’t have the patience to fool with you.” She said it because she had a headache, and John Henry said he had one too, but she thought he was simply imitating her.

Berenice helped the nurse with him every day, as he was dying, and she couldn’t bear it. “‘I don’t see why he has to suffer so,’ Berenice would say: and the word suffer was one she could not associate with John Henry, a word she shrank from as before an unknown hollow of the heart.” Around the same time Honey was arrested. He was now on a chain gang sentenced to eight years. And so Berenice became smaller, less assured. She was sitting in a chair wearing an old raveled sweater with her fox fur in her lap. Frances was busily making fancy sandwiches for her new friend, Mary Littlejohn. They met in the middle of October when the troubles with John Henry and Honey were going on. In fact, they went to the Fair the week that John Henry was in the midst of his ultimate agony. The two were now obsessed with art and poetry, and they planned to travel the world together when Frances was 16. “I am just mad about Michelangelo,” Frances would say. Frances suspected that Berenice did not like Mary, because she had long braided hair, because she was Catholic. So Frances used the words that were designed to hurt: “You could not possibly understand her. It’s not in you.” Berenice no longer challenged Frances.

And so we see how Frances has become, after the wedding (which she never spoke of again), and it is something of a surprise. What we have been through was not a Bildungsroman, however much we expected it to be. It fact Frankie Addams is one of the more unusual children in Western literature. Dickens established the customary way children were used in literature. They are essentially guileless, innocent receptacles who need nothing more than protection. They have only potential and are empty of the selfishness, cruelty and greediness which is only acquired later in life. They are, in short, the only representatives who truly constitute Rousseau’s man in the state of nature. This portrayal, especially if uniformly rendered, make children the perfect vehicle for exciting emotions of empathy from the reader. Even in Dostoevsky, children are almost always innocent, and so when an ultimate outrage is to be depicted, it is perpetrated on children (consider the crime in Stavrogin’s confession), or when the utter baseness of corruption is needed, it is a child who is corrupted (for example, Kolya). That is how McCullers treats John Henry. Entirely innocent, he seems to have no trace of cunning, duplicity or deceipt about him. He is unerringly loyal to Frankie. When she tells him that her former frineds had spread the rumor that she smelled bad, he hugged her and said, “You smell sweet. … Like a hundred flowers.” He seems to not resent the numerous insults, put downs or malice she hurls at him. He is an undemanding font of love.

McCullers uses this same ingrained presumption to reveal a truth in Frankie—that even a child is fundamentally selfish, indifferent to others and unfazed by the tragedies around him. Frankie’s dream of fulfillment is fundamentally self-absorbed and self-delusional. Those two aspects are what doom her plan.

And it is there that we see a hint that this behavior of Frankie is not simply a case of adolescent immaturity. There is one metaphor that recurs throughout the novel—that of moths and butterflies. These insects are of course the prime example of metamorphosis in nature. Each transform into an adult from a larva through a pupa stage. From the beginning we are teased with the prospect that the story will be transformative. Frankie seems to hope for it: “I wish I was somebody else except me.” The first time we see the insects, they are moths attracted by the lamp in Frankie’s room. John Henry says: “Those beautiful butterflies. They are trying to get in.” Frankie associates their plight with her own: “To me it is the irony of fate. The way they come here. Those moths could fly anywhere. Yet they keep hanging around the windows of this house.” After she writes the run-away note addressed to her father (which she signs “Sincerely yours”), the “green and white moths were nervous at the window screen and the night outside was queer.”

Butterflies are associated with adult skillfulness. Frankie notices her father’s hands (the hands of a jeweler) hover over tiny watches “as carefully as butterflies.” And Honey, who was an educated and articulate person, forced by racism beneath his station, was able to talk like an educated person, with lips “as light as butterflies.” But at other times, when weighed down with oppression, he would only talk “with a colored jumble that even his own family could not follow.”

But butterflies did not signify metamorphosis. They did not even associate themselves with the joy that John Henry saw in them, for the day of his death was “a golden morning of the most butterflies, the clearest sky.” He gradually recedes in the mind of Frankie, until he is barely thought of except “occasionally at twilight time or when the special hush would come into the room.” Instead Frances’s search for “we-ness” is directed towards Mary Littlejohn and their planned trip around the world. Although the object has changed, Frances’s essential idea of what would complete her (partnership with another and escape from her present environs) remains the same.

It is worth pointing out here that McCullers does not solely rely on literary techniques like metaphors to create a juvenile or immature worldview. It is inherent in all the narrative. Not only does she have a superb ability to capture the manner of speech of the characters, including the children (without making them sound oddly foreign, as is often the case in Mark Twain’s stories). But she was also able to reveal the point of view in the voice of the narrator and the manner of narration (without having the narrator adopt the child’s voice). Descriptions of things visible is a perfect example. For example, when F. Jasmine thinks of the monkey man and his animal as she remembers him from past summers, the narrators describes him as follows:

“The old Frankie had always loved the monkey and the monkey-man. They resembled each other—they both had an anxious, questioning expression, as though they wondered every minute if what they did was wrong. The monkey, in fact, was nearly always wrong; after he danced to the organ tune, he was supposed to take off his darling little cap and pass it around to the audience, but likely as not he would get mixed up and bow and reach out his cap to the monkey-man, and not the audience. And the monkey-man would plead with him, and finally begin to chatter and fuss. When he would make as if to slap the monkey, the monkey would cringe down and chatter also—and they would look at each other with the same scared exasperation, their wrinkled faces very sad. After watching them a long time, the old Frankie fascinated, began to take on the same expression as she followed them around.”

The description manifests the kind of close attention that a child would have for the monkey and his keeper. By depicting the details of the monkey’s behavior that would most amuse a child it describes the viewer as much as what is being viewed.

Another example is the representation of what Frankie saw when she looked into the bedroom of the dying Uncle Charles:

“He looked like an old man carved in brown wood and covered with a sheet. Only his eyes had moved, and they were like blue jelly, and she had felt they might come out from the sockets and roll like blue wet jelly down his stiff face. She had stood in the doorway staring at him—then tiptoed away, afraid. They finally made out that he complained the sun shone the wrong way through the window, but that was not the thing that hurt him so. And it was death.”

In this case, the child focuses on the frightening aspect of the dying man’s appearance. An adult would more likely sympathize with the fate than a child. And for Frankie death really is simply something that appears in dreams to frighten her.

McCullers’s ability to convey something close to a non-idealized, but still sympatheic, view of childhood and adolescence is not simply a matter of autobiographical recollection. Although she did not create a large body of short stories, by the time she wrote The Member of the Wedding, she had written a handful that dealt with children. In each of them, McCullers has the child dealing with a problem of adult perplexity. And instead of treating the child as solely (or even largely) a receptacle for adult sympathy, she sees the problem through the child’s point of view, and by doing so she brings the adult reader into complete empathy with the child, even when the child is acting selfishly or immaturely. “Breath for the Sky” is an example. That story treats the condition of a child with a serious lung infection (possibly tuberculosis) who is about to be sent to a sanitarium 300 miles away. She struggles with her resentment of her family, who seem to be enjoying their lives despite her sickness, and her hatred for her nurse. “Wunderkind” tells of a 15-year-old girl who was once proclaimed a musical prodigy who has come to grips with the fact that she has been defeated in her quest to be a concert pianist. “The Haunted Boy” tells of a boy who having experienced the attempted suicide of his mother comes home to an unexpectedly empty house. His terror turns to fury when his mother returns unharmed. These stories treat children as agents fully capable of facing the crises before them and also responsible for their choices. It is this view of children that makes them fit subjects on their own for serious literature.

Frances in the end is also responsible for her choice, however much she fails to live up to our own expectations of how she should have acted. It is quite true that she has been given limited options in life, and that, like Mick Kelly, she will probably be forced to give up and expect the confined existence of a backward Georgia mill town. After all, Berenice, who in the ends proves capable of deep empathy and heroic efforts, ends up having to settle for a life below her expectations. Frances still pursues a dream that is inherently incapable of fulfillment, but to do so she ignores the suffering of Berenice and John Henry, the only two who showed her any real affectionate regard, despite her poor treatment of them.

So how does this all related to McCullers’s “One Big Idea” that we began this series with? By probing how this adolescent attempts to account for what seems an existential void at the center of life, McCullers makes several points. First, meaning is not the same thing as gratification of self-love. The latter can never be obtained or if once tasted is soon lost (as Berenice testifies). Second, a person does not achieve his “true purpose” at the expense of others. Finally, the more frequent metamorphosis is not one where a childish wish matures into a noble purpose but rather one where a person uses self-delusion to settle for what is convenient.

McCullers would only publish one more novel during her life and that would be 15 years after The Member of the Wedding. In the last post of this series, we’ll look at that novel and see what generalizations we can make about her fiction.


1Carlos L. Dews (ed.), Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Auobiography of Carson McCullers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), p. 21.  To call this work “unfinished” gives the impression that it is at at stage of completion that it had yet to achieve. In fact, it is a collection of drafts of incidents without any organizing principle (not even chronological). Basic facts are omitted, and scenes that seem to describe specific incidents often cover longer periods collapsed by dropping details and sequences. It is frequently difficult to tell how one paragraph is supposed to relate to what precedes or follows it. It has none of the direct and simple eloquence that her published prose shows. In other words it is not particularly rewarding in its own right. It would have taken much more work to turn into something that could be published, and the editor of this edition does very little by way of notes or explanations to render the manuscript very useful. It does, however, contain interesting photographs from the Photography Collection of the University of Texas, which has a collection of McCullers’s papers. [Return to text.]

2The year is never specifically stated in the novel but can be deduced from events heard on the radio (citizens chasing Germans from Paris, Patton marching across Europe). Given the year, the novel begins on August 25, 1944 (“the last Friday of August.”) This is confirmed when we learn that Frankie was born the same month that Berenice’s first husband died, November 1931. When Frankie, in figuring how fast she is growing, considers that she is “twelve and five-sixths years old,” it shows that it is August 1944. [Return to text.]

3Buber’s Ich und du was translated as I and Thou and published in New York in 1937. The concept of existential dialogue had become familiar among New York intellectuals by the time McCullers had arrived there. [Return to text.]

4Margaret B. McDowell, Carson McCullers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), p. 87. [Return to text.]

5Carson McCullers, “The Vision Shared,” in The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), pp. 262–65. This essay was originally published in Theatre Arts (April 1950). The paperback edition was published by Bantam in 1972, and this essays is found on pp. 297–300 with the quoted passage on p. 300. [Return to text.]

6There is a curious chronological mistake (as far as I can tell) that has greatly bothered me, enough to look at several editions of the novel to see if it was simply a typographical mistake, but all editions (including the first) that I consulted have it, and I cannot account for it. The mistake is that in the first two pages of the novel, it is made clear that the day is “the last Friday of August” and that as Bernice recounted, “Your brother come home with the girl he means to marry and took dinner today with you and your Daddy.” And yet several pages before the end of the first part, the narrator says: “So that Sunday when it happened, when her brother and the bride came to the house …” The latter cannot be a simple printer’s error, because it is the day that Berenice “changed into her Sunday clothes” and goes out with her brother and beau on her night off, Sunday night. Nor can it be a mistake that the novel sets the arrival of the brother and his fiancée on Friday, for it is on that day that Frankie makes her decision, which sets in motion what takes place the next day, Saturday, the day before the wedding, which is the subject of Part II. What makes this oversight hard to explain is that this novel was worked over by McCullers herself to convert it into a play, and surely she must have noticed this problem. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but if so, I cannot see it. [Return to text.]

7In Illumination and Night Glare McCullers describes how she received the “illumination” that Frankie’s reaction to the wedding was the key to the story. In McCullers’s drafts to that point, Frankie “was just a girl in loved with her music teacher, a most banal theme.” On Thanksgiving Day, she and her Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis hosted a dinner in their house in Brooklyn. That night McCullers and Gyspy Rose Lee stepped outside and “the fresh air after the long, elaborate meal cleared my head and suddenly, breathlessly I said to Gypsy, ‘Frankie is in love with the bride of her brother and wants to join the wedding.'” (p. 32). [Return to text.]

8Enthusiasts, etymologically, have been “inspired” or “inhabited” (en) by a god (theos). The ancient Greeks regarded madness as the immanence of the divine. Evangelists are those who announce (angellos, the same root as “angel,” who are simply divine messengers) the good (news) (eu).  [Return to text.]


Stories by Machado de Assis

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. 1890.)

Machado de Assis. (Photograph by Marc Ferrez. ca. 1880.)

Dalkey Archive Press has just released a collection of newly translated stories written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The collection is a good occasion for noting that Modernism in fiction was not the exclusive province of Europe and did not have to wait for Joyce. The stories in this collection were published in various Brazilian journals between the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s. This is the period that Machado made a radical shift in style, transforming himself from an amusing teller of parlor romances to a clear-sighted social critic who experimented with a variety of narrative techniques and plot structures.

Machado wrote approximately 200 short stores (in addition to his acclaimed novels) and before this publication only 33 had been translated into English. So the addition of these  13 stories is certainly a boon for that reason alone. But the translation, by Rhett McNeil, is so skillful in following the subtleties in the different narrative voices Macho employs that the volume is both enjoyable and instructive.

What makes the late Machado stories starkly unique is the combination of; (1) blurring the line between naturalism and the fantastic; (2) subtly ironic commentary, which acts as counterpoint to deep psychological insight into the characters and their predicaments; and (3) narrative structures that usually involve at least one significant misdirection and often coil back on themselves to make an ironic or unexpected comment on the nature of the narrative itself.

Other writers around the time were injecting stories with elements of the fantastic. Mark Twain, for example, published Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Maeterlinck would begin his symbolist plays at the end of Machado’s career. Both, however, used fantasy as an effect unto itself. For Twain, it was mainly to produce humorous (or dark humorous) effects. For Maeterlinck the fairy tale structures advertised the symbolism of the themes. Machado, by contrast, admitted fantastic elements as accepted facts, much like a naturalist would use social structures as a given. There is never any mugging over the unreal; when the narrator comments at all it is ordinarily about the characters’ reactions in the given situation, not about the situation. Couples can exchange souls, a psychiatrist is given carte blanche to commit any resident of a town to his asylum, a man drinks an Indian potion that allows him to live forever, Alcibiades returns to life by means of spiritualism. Are these things actually true? In some cases the narrator may have reason to dissemble. But Machado makes no attempt to explain or justify these extravagances. In this way, he was something of a pioneer for later Spanish-speaking Latin American story-tellers, such as Borges (who took this technique to its absurdist conclusions) and the later realismo mágico writers (who employed the fantastic more freely and for other purposes).

As for the narrative point of view, Machado is unflinching in how he reveals the characters’ inner workings and is unsparing in showing the causes and often tragic consequences of the characters’ limited awareness. In this respect, his “psychological” approach was similar to approaches developing in France and Russia. Machado allows the reader to see the inner workings but does not concentrate on the tragedy (as would, for example, Flaubert), preferring instead to allow the character some privacy. Moreover, while Machado was willing to show flaws, some which lead to murder, he never dissects a character to his humiliating core the way Dostoevsky would do. Machado’s view of human nature was no more sanguine than Dostoevsky’s, but his gently sardonic pose made it unnecessary to detail all the attributes of a character’s shortcomings. There is a lightness of touch to his critiques and a willingness to allow the reader to exercise his own judgment. In this respect he reminds one of Jorge Amado, who would be selected to the same Brazilian Academy of Letters 66 years after Machado was chosen its first President.

The last aspect I highlighted, Machado’s plotting technique, is one that I find most interesting. Machado could write a compact short story with an initial premise which picks up momentum before delivering a directly flowing conclusion. A good example is “The Fortune-Teller,” which you can read in a collection of Brazilian tales translated by Isaac Goldberg, Brazilian Tales (Boson: The Four Seas Co.: 1921), found at Project Gutenberg (here). (That book also has two other stories by Machado and is the earliest English version of any of Machado’s short stories.) But Machado’s best short fiction involves narratives which meander as if under their own logic and land in places that are entirely unexpected. Occasionally, the stories do not even land, but just trail off. The effect is something like one has at the conclusion of certain of Chekhov’s tales, when an abrupt or unexpected results induces more reflection than they would if they were inherent in the story’s beginning.

I hesitate to discuss the plot structure of these essentially brand new stories (to English readers) for fear of depriving the reader of the discovery of novelties. Let me simply refer to the story “The Academies of Siam,” which subscribers to Harper’s Monthly can read in the March 2014 issue (here). The story begins with a provocative narration:

Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.

The tale begins with a dispute among these academies over a theological point, the gender of the soul. This dispute, as most academic disputes do, becomes intense well beyond its importance. But it soon provides the pretext for one of the concubines in the King’s harem to engineer an intrigue, which will involve the exchanging of souls. The planting of a different soul into an existing person has consequences in the outlook of the new transplant. This in turn requires consultation with the surviving academy, and so the story continues, back and forth, between the concubines’ plottings and the plottings of the academics, neither of which determine the ultimate outcome, which resolves from a different source and yet manages to place in doubt her reliance on the academy in the first place. But of course, as we were told at the outset, that academy never existed. The final sentence is as wry as the opening.

I should note that the stories are both highly imaginative and gracefully told. Beautiful images and flourishes appear unexpectedly, but do not detract from the narrative voice. It is as thought, like the author we are in on some grand joke. “Comedy” exactly as Dante used the term. And while the tales are steeped in learning (classical and Arabic), none of it is flaunted, as it is in too much of European modernism. All of this causes me to wonder why more of these tales are not made available in English.

Sargent’s Watercolors


Gourds by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor. 1908. Brooklyn Museum.)

Gourds by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1908. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

There’s a week left to see the gorgeous exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of seldom seen watercolors, “John Singer Sargent Watercolors” (the Brooklyn Museum is open from Wednesdays through Sundays), but if you can’t make it on such short notice, you will have another chance later this year, because it will be shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, beginning October 1, 2013. (This is good news for those of you who like me are always finding themselves at the end of an exhibition’s run despite all past experience and good intentions.) Either way it’s worth making some effort to see this show (and braving the heat in New York City in order to get into the #2 train is some effort these days), because not only is it visually delightful, it will also probably dispel some misconceptions about Sargent and his place in Western art.

This exhibition is the kind of big show that has become infrequent recently, owing to insurance costs, increasing transportation risks, and maybe even reluctance of donors. By “big show” I mean not only one that has lots of items on display, but also one that shows an artist in a new light by comprehensively illustrating some aspect or period of his work. This one fits that definition and vividly demonstrates how watercolors can hold their own against oil painting for photographic-quality representation as well as for making bold, personal visual statements.

Mountain Fire by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1903. Brooklyn Museum of Art.)

Mountain Fire by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1903. Brooklyn Museum.)

Watercolors are particularly apt to fade in light. That is the chief reason that the public at large has never seen these items. After the show these paintings will likely go back to storage. And despite the fact that many of works are available online and all can be seen in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue by Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone (with contributions by others), neither viewing can substitute for a personal inspection of the originals, which show the nature of the washes, the texture of the paper and where it was wetted, the layers of the paint, Sargent’s uses of opaque pigments and wax resists, his intentional scrapings, and most importantly his bold brushstrokes. The originals of watercolors differ much more from their reproduction in print, slides or other backlit renderings than do similar reproductions of oils because many of the pigments used in watercolors are translucent, a quality that cannot be captured by the other forms of publication. So this exhibition is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the bulk of a major phase of an artist’s career that is more written about than seen.


Pomegranites by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1908. Brooklyn Museum of Art.)

Pomegranates by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1908. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

This show represents the merging of two complete collections of watercolors selected by Sargent himself a century ago. One collection (owned by the Brooklyn Museum) came from Sargent’s first major American watercolor exhibition, which took place at New York’s Knoedler Gallery in 1909. Although Sargent had several times mounted highly successful watercolor shows in London, he was reluctant to undergo to the trouble and expense of boxing, shipping, insuring and clearing the works through customs. There would be no prospect of immediate financial rewards because Sargent, as a matter of principle, never sold his watercolors. Though he demurred, he nevertheless received continuous requests for a U.S. show, most persistently from his friend Edward Darley Boit. Boit was a Harvard lawyer who also had a specialty in watercolors. More importantly he had a wealthy father-in-law, the Boston nabob John Perkins Cushing who provided his daughter with a legacy sufficient to allow Boit and her to live the ex-patriot life while Boit painted in Paris. Sargent was there at the time and was commissioned to paint the couple’s four children. The result is visually stunning. But more, its formal structure, the way the children are posed, is so clever and the rendering of their facial expressions and carriage so perfectly natural that one can infer the moods of each child, their attitudes towards each other and their varying degrees of interest in the painter (or whatever else is attracting their attention in the direction of the viewer). It is one of the most emotionally satisfying portraits of Sargent’s career, because it conveys some sort of “truth” about the children beyond their appearance and allows the viewer to imagine a narrative. It suggests a story.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1882. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) (Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.) Click to enlarge.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1882. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) (Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.) Click to enlarge.

A quarter of a century later, Sargent eventually came around to the idea of a New York watercolor show, motivated in part by a charitable impulse towards his friend, as he thought the exhibition would be a joint show with both his own and Boit’s watercolors. The gallery agreed, stipulating its standard commission, even though Sargent anticipated no sales.

Dolce Far Niente by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1907. Brooklyn  Museum of Art.) This oil is in the watercolors exhibition because illustrating the informal portraits did in watercolor. The scene is as Alpine. There is only one model for the three males in the painting, Sargent's manservant. (Click to enlarge.)

Dolce Far Niente by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1907. Brooklyn Museum.) This oil is in the Brooklyn exhibition and illustrates how Sargent’s relaxed watercolor portraits carried over to his oils, which no longer had the formal, dramatic look of his iconic portraits. This scene takes place in the Alps. Sargent’s manservant is the model for all three males in the painting.. (Click to enlarge.)

Evidently one of the first to see the 1909 show at Knoedler Gallery was Brooklyn Museum president Aaron Augustus Healy. Healy had long been an admirer of Sargent. Two years before the Knoedler show he sat for a formal portrait by Sargent. Healy had also recently purchased Sargent’s Dolce Far Niente (left). Sensing an opportunity to strike a handsome bargain, Healy quickly arranged an offer. The museum would pay $20,000 for the entire set of paintings. Sargent’s main objection to selling, it seems, was the belief that one watercolor was too ephemeral to stand alone. He regarded the collection as the work of art. Faced with the offer, Sargent agreed, and all 83 paintings went to Brooklyn. (Only about 50 of these paintings are in the Brooklyn exhibition, the museum having sold some of the items since the purchase.)

John Singer Sargent's controversial Synagogue (before recent restoration), part of the

John Singer Sargent’s controversial Synagogue (before recent restoration), part of the “Triumph of Religion” series of murals at the Boston Public Library. Faced with objections to the supposed message that Judaism crumbled with the advent of Christ, Singer declined to complete the series with his planned Sermon on the Mount.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was caught flat-footed by the sale, which took place even before the exhibition made its way to Boston. Although Sargent was born in Florence (in 1856) and did not visit the United States until he was twenty (and spent little time thereafter), he always regarded himself as an American. (He declined George VII’s offer of a knighthood believing he would have to give up his U.S. citizenship to accept.) He considered Boston “home,” because his father’s family was one of the oldest New England families, dating back to colonial times. (Sargent’s grandfather, however, moved, when his shipping business failed, from Gloucester to Philadelphia, where Sargent’s father maintained a successful eye surgery practice before going abroad with his wife.) Out of loyalty to his claimed home, Sargent often undertook projects for Boston institutions or sold paintings to them at below market prices. Sargent underwrote his own expenses, for example, for two separate trips to the Middle East and North Africa to make studies for his famous “Triumph of Religion” murals at the Boston Public Library. In 1909 Sargent had hoped that the Museum of Fine Arts would bid on his collection. When he learned of their disappointment, he planned another exhibition of watercolors (also with Boit). All of the items selected for the second American exhibition he signed, anticipating a sale. The Museum of Fine Arts acquired the 50 watercolors even before they were exhibited in 1912. Those watercolors are also part of the present Brooklyn Museum exhibition.

With the combination of these two Sargent-selected collections the full power of his late career preference is made evident. Even a superficial survey affirms both the technical mastery and mature sensibility that Sargent brought to these works. And given his obsession with the reflection of bright light off surfaces (often white), the exhibition literally scintillates on the walls.

But does it change our view of Sargent?

Roger Fry and Sargent’s Reputation

Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1879. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.) Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.  (Click to enlarge.)

Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1879. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.) Not in the Brooklyn exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Throughout his life Sargent’s raw technical ability made success effortless. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts on his first examination. He easily picked up the technique of his master, Carolus-Duran, of painting without underdrawing and quickly grasped Carolus-Duran’s concept (based on Velázquez) of visualizing a subject as an assemblage of planes of various shapes and colors and set at various angles to the canvas. The light thrown across the canvass would reflect on each plane, throwing additional light on to the other planes or showing them in relief. (For a simple illustration of this effect, see Mountain Fire above. In the oil portraits the technique is much more subtly rendered.) Being able to visualize this concept allowed for Sargent’s signature bold brushstrokes.

In 1877 Sargent, only 21, had his first painting accepted at the Paris Salon. He regularly thereafter exhibited there (including one in 1879 of Carolus-Duran), until the bourgeoisie, outraged by his Portrait of Madame X at the Paris Salon in 1789, chased him to London. In London he was by far the most sought after portrait painter of the era. Even before he moved here, Sargent received critical acclaim in England ever since his showing of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (see below), although there was the underground murmur that it was too “French” for English tastes. When Sargent began showing his watercolors (private passion not for sale), he was again heralded. And when he moved to Boston for the last phase of his life, he was the lion of Boston’s art world.

In short, throughout his life he received almost universal critical acclamation and popular approval. But Sargent’s reputation went into eclipse after his death. And that was due almost exclusively to one man, British critic Roger Fry.

Roger Fry was one of the original Bloomsbury group of taste setters. Outside the art history world, he is known today mainly for being the subject of Virginia Woolf’s last book, an oddly defensive biography of her friend.

Facade of Chartres Cathedral by Roger Fry. (Watercolor on paper. 1906. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

Facade of Chartres Cathedral by Roger Fry. (Watercolor on paper. 1906. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

Fry was an early critic of Sargent, first of his watercolors. The Brooklyn’s exhibition’s catalogue notes that Fry’s early hostile opinion came with Sargent’s success at his first exhibition of watercolors at Carfax Gallery in London, May-June 1903. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has the illustrated catalogue of that first show. Sargent would exhibit watercolors there again in 1905, 1906 and 1908.) Right before Sargent’s 1903 show, Roger Fry had a showing there (April 1903). For Fry the show was particularly noteworthy; it was his first solo exhibitions in any medium. He offered 34 watercolors. The works were conventional, detailed studies in pale washes typical of British watercolors of the day and are seldom reproduced today. The reviews were qualified, as they would be throughout his life. Virginia Woolf would record his impressions of them:

All the critics, he complained, said the same thing; what the critic of the Westminster Gazette said may therefore be taken as an average sample. “Too strong a critical faculty and too wide an acquaintance with precedent are apt to act as a danger upon spontaneity. Sometimes we may suspect Mr Fry of thinking too much of his models and trusting too little to his instinct”—that was the usual verdict. (Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co: c1940), p. 119.)

By contrast the reviews were glowing for Sargent’s work. Sargent’s watercolors of course were the antithesis of Fry’s. They were bold, colorful and breathed life. The Westminster Gazette (talking about the show at the Royal Society in 1904 with many of the same works) said that Sargent was “an eagle in a dove-cote.” Fry called Sargent’s works “crude.”

Fry’s hostility to Sargent, however, preceded the Carfax show. Again, Virginia Woolf:

Duke of Portland by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1901. Private collection?) (Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.) Click to enlarge.

Duke of Portland by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1901. Private collection?) (Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.) Click to enlarge.

[Fry] condemned [Sargent] instantly and unhesitatingly. “Mr Sargent”, he wrote in 1900, “is simply a précis writer of appearances.” Of his portrait of Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane and Mrs Tennant he wrote, “Since Sir T. Lawrence’s time no one has been able thus to seize the exact cachet of fashionable life, or to render it in paint with a smartness and piquancy which so exactly corresponds to the social atmosphere itself.  … He appears to harbour no imaginations that he could not easily avow at the afternoon tea-table he so brilliantly depicts.” The portrait of Sir Ian Hamilton made him exclaim, “I cannot see the man for his likeness”. And when he stood before Sargent’s portrait of the Duke of Portland he recorded his sensations in the following order: “First the collie dog which the Duke caresses has one lock of very white hair; secondly the Duke’s boots are so polished that they glitter; thirdly the Duke’s collar is very large and very stiffly starched; fourthly the Duke was when he stood for his portrait sunburnt. After that we might come to the Duke himself.” But by the time he came to the Duke himself is so “deadened by the fizz and crackle of Mr Sargent’s brush work that [he] can see nothing.” Whatever other judges might say, Sargent was to him nothing but a brilliant journalist whose work had no artistic value and would have no more permanent interest than the work of an expert photographer. (pp. 110-11)

Roger Fry, self portrait. (Oil on canvas. 1928. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn exhibition. Click to enlarge.

Roger Fry, self-portrait. (Oil on canvas. 1928. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn exhibition. Click to enlarge.

The irreversible break, however, came in 1910. In November Fry, now a full-throated modernist having been converted by Cézanne, organized a show at the Grafton Galleries, London, entitled Manet and the Post-Impressionists. A large number of viewers were greatly discomposed by the exhibit, their shock testifying to how insulated the English art scene was at the time. To rehabilitate public opinion and salvage the show, Fry advocated for the post-impressionists (a term he coined) in three pieces for The Nation. In the last of these, on December 24, 1910 (“The Post-Impressionists—II,” The Nation, vol. 8, p. 402 (December 3, 1910)), he overstated his case. Among the artists he claimed supported the goals of post-impressionism he listed Sargent. This drew not one, but two, open letters to The Nation, from Sargent (published in the January 7 and 14, 1911 issues). The first letter was particularly direct for a man as mild and refined as Sargent:

Mr. Fry has been entirely misinformed, and if I had been inclined to join in the controversy, he would have known my sympathies were in the exactly opposite direction as far as the novelties are concerned . . . I have declined Mr. Fry’s request to place my name on the initial list of promoters of the Exhibition on the ground of not knowing the work of the painters to whom the name of Post-Impressionists can be applied; it certainly does not apply to Manet or Cézanne. . . . The fact is that I am absolutely sceptical as to their [the painters in the show other than Manet and Cézanne] having any claim whatever to being works of art . . . But one wonders what will Mr. Fry not believe, and one is tempted to say what will he not print?

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Sargent Singer. (Oil on canvas. 185-86. Tate Britain. (Not in the Brooklyn exhibition.) Fry argued in Transformations that the his and the the critics initial raves were mistaken: the lily petals are

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Sargent Singer. (Oil on canvas. 1885-86. Tate Britain.) Not in the Brooklyn exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Fry claimed he was unfazed by Sargent’s comments, but throughout his life he remained hostile to Sargent’s work and icy to Sargent personally.

Fry argued in Transformations that his and other critics’ initial raves were mistaken: the lily petals are “thin and tortured shapes” and the background a “lifeless green.” It is, he says, a “feeble echo” of Manet and his friends.

Shortly after Sargent died Fry wrote an acerbically malevolent review of  the retrospective of Sargent’s works then showing at the Royal Academy.  Fry acknowledged the English critics’ excitement when Sargent first arrived on the scene, but attributed it, rather implausibly, to their wonder that he could create so many works “with his own hand” (unlike Rubens, they supposedly said, who had numerous assistants). Fry then turns this feature against Sargent, proving he was no Rubens. To Fry Sargent’s facility came at the expense of his aesthetics. Sargent, he claimed, ceased looking at subjects like an artist who ought to strive for compositional balance, “adumbrations” of color harmony and a real interest “in the way contours flow.” Instead Sargent, according to Fry, launched himself by the end of the 1880s into a “world of imagery which is so fortunately unhampered by esthetic scruples.”

That, indeed, is the explanation of why he could do so may “with his own hand.” That hand was a highly trained and obedient servant of his eye, and his eye took in at a glance those salient facts of appearance out of which the average man builds his world; and, as he never felt tempted to probe sensation deeper for those other relations which only emerge for a disinterested and prolonged contemplation, there was nothing to check his unbounded energy; nothing to prevent him succeeding, as he did, every time.

We must abandon, then, this futile search for esthetic values in Sargent’s work—a search into which the misleading use of the word ‘artist’ has led us. Instead of demanding from him what it clearly was not in him to give, let us consider what it is that he does afford us. We must look at these pictures not as works of art with a value in and for themselves, but as illustrations or reports about other things. . . . The legend is that he had profound psychological insight into character, that he revealed this in all its nudity with a sublime indifference to social conventions. As far as this exhibition goes, this theory is hardly borne out.

It goes on and on like this. After repeating the evaluation in many iterations that “Sargent had neither the psychological nor the distinctively artistic vision” only “the undifferentiated eye of the ordinary man,” he concludes in what with these withering words wrapped in praise for Sargent’s gentlemanliness:

Certainly, in all that I have said in protest against the general opinion that Sargent was a great master I have never thought of the man himself with other than admiration. Although I did not know him personally, all I ever heard of him led me to believe him generous and self-effacing; I am sure that he was no less distinguished and genuine as a man than, in my opinion, he was striking and undistinguished as an illustrator and nonexistent as an artist. [“S. Sargent / As seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition of his works, 1926, and in the National Gallery” beginning at p. 126 of Roger Fry, Transformations: Critical and Speculative Essays on Art (London: Chatto & Windus: 1926)].

So against the weight of nearly all other critical judgment, Fry finds that Sargent was merely a photographer, who had neither psychological insight nor aesthetic vision, at least in any modern sense. That judgment has tended to stick to Sargent over the years, largely because Fry (thanks in great part to Virginia Woolf) has assumed the mantle as the successor to Ruskin.

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt) by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1882. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Not in Brooklyn exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt) by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1882. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Not in Brooklyn exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Against Fry’s charge that Sargent had no ability to capture psychological nuance, however, Henry James stands. A more subtle observer of upper class psychology did not then exist. And though he became a close friend of Sargent, his verdict was unequivocal before that time. When he first saw Lady with the Rose, he was staggered: “It offers the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn. It is not simply precocity in the guise of maturity—a phenomenon we very often meet, which deceives us only for an hour; it is the freshness of youth combined with the artistic experience, really felt and assimilated, of generations.” It is of course no wonder that James marveled at the portrait: It describes visually the very kind of woman who James described with words. James saw his written portrayals to be a cognate art form to portraiture. And he recognized in Sargent exactly the kind of subtle psychologist that he himself was. The pose and expression tells a story of the woman, one that is hidden beneath the surface, only hinted at (but hinted it clearly is) by outward appearances. This is essentially the same story that James would tell of all his great women characters.

The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1899. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Not in the Brookly exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1899. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Not in the Brookly exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

James would remain an admirer of Sargent for the rest of his life and sat for a portrait himself. But if you needn’t choose between Fry and James on the question of Sargent’s psychological prowess, you can see several of Sargent’s most iconic portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before (or after) the Brooklyn Museum show. The Met has in one room the monumental portraits of Charlotte Burckhardt (to the left above), Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892), the Madame X (1893-94), Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897), The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant (1899) (to the right), the painting which Fry deprecated (quoted above), and Sargent’s friend and fellow portrait painter William M. Chase, N.A. (1902) (together with a monumental Portrait of Whistler by Chase). The gallery offers ample opportunity to evaluate whether Sargent was adept at conveying subtle emotions or overall character.

For my own part, the experience at the Met might raise a different criticism; namely, that Sargent, for much of is life, devoted is considerable gifts to serving the caprices of the wealthy and power at a time of particular social inequality and gaudy consumption (a time almost as obscene as our own and dubbed in the United States as “The Gilded Era” by Mark Twain). The psychological truths revealed may be of a particularly narrow range, of the insufferably privileged of Edwardian society, of fops and dandies and overly pampered society women. This charge is rarely leveled against Henry James himself, however, and in any event was not part of Roger Fry’s complaints. And without going at length and putting too fine a point on it, most Western art as far back as Egyptian tomb reliefs, painting and funerary items was commissioned by the very wealthy and concerns the interests of the small ruling class to flatter its self-esteem. Art for and about the rest of us is called either kitsche or folk art.

Sargent’s Major Career Switch

Irises by Edouard Manet. (Watercolor on paper. 1880. Private Collection.) Not in Brooklyn exhibition. Click to enlarge.

Irises by Edouard Manet. (Watercolor on paper. 1880. Private Collection.) Not in Brooklyn exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Sargent painted with watercolors all his life, and he did so seriously with attention to composition and technique. Richard Ormand’s introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue examines the influences on Sargent’s early art, and makes the case that Sargent early studied Manet’s brushstroke technique. Sargent even purchased a watercolor, Irises, at Manet’s posthumous Studio sale in 1885.

Many of the early Sargent watercolors (as well as sketches) are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they are not currently being displayed. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, by contrast, is in the main about the watercolors that Sargent painted after he made a decision drastically to scale back on commission portraits, after Sargent had developed his distinctive style in oils. Sargent had long made it a habit to take three months of each year to paint landscapes on the continent. After 1902 he grew more and more restive spending time in his studio. In 1905 he stopped taking commissions on the ground that he could not complete those he already had. By 1909 he told Boit he didn’t do portraits at all. When pressed persistently, he would occasionally make quick charcoal sketches (as we saw (in another post) he did of William Butler Yeats).

All'Ave Maria by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1902-04. Brooklyn Museum.) One of many scenes from Venice painted from a gondola. (Click to enlarge.)

All’Ave Maria by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1902-04. Brooklyn Museum.) One of many scenes from Venice painted from a gondola. (Click to enlarge.)

Sargent’s watercolors during this period of transition were not a mere avocation or a simple, relaxing pastime. When he travelled abroad, he devoted himself exclusively to painting. By Ormund’s count in three seasons worth of continental jaunts, from 1902 to 1904 when he travelled variously to Switzerland, Spain, France, and different parts of Italy (but always each year to Venice), he produced 230 works, or about one painting per day (including travel). In 1905 while visiting the Middle East in connection with the ongoing “Triumph of Religion” murals, he painted 72 landscapes.

The works were not mere sketches; Sargent worked outdoors for as long as there was light. Nevertheless, given the time constraints, he could not produce works in the same way he did with his studio portraits. Nor did he try. He was not looking to create a study of character. The works did not reveal psychology beneath appearance. In fact, they were as different (in purpose, composition and technique) from his studio work as is the difference between outdoors and indoors.

Most of his 20th century watercolors represents attempts to recreate glimpses or perhaps better, non-critical gazes. They are exercises in showing how the eye takes in a scene. His canvases were designed to tell a story, but his watercolors intended to show a glance, a coup d’oeil. For example, in his portraits (take the The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, shown above, as an example), the figures are completely modeled with especial attention to the face. The clothing is painting with extreme care, and the objects in the picture are rendered in a way that the viewer can actually study them. Contrast that with the watercolor Florence: Torre Galli.

Florence Torre Galli by john Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

Florence Torre Galli by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

The work is noticeably larger than most of the other watercolors. It measures 27½ by 26¼ inches compared with the usual work which was just slightly larger than letter sized. The larger size allows the work to accommodate two groups in the foreground—the five men to the left and the two oxen to the right—and the balcony on top. If you look carefully at the faces of the men, you will see that they are all essentially blank. To the extent the faces have features at all they are provided by the graphite underdrawing, not the paint. By contrast the face of the ox looking at us (as well as the ropes from the yoke) is completely modeled. A closer inspection of it shows that the effect is achieved by brushing thicker amounts of opaque paint to define the features of the ox’s face. The faces of the men are colored by translucent watercolor. So in this painting the features of the ox’s face appear more important than those of the men. The human faces receive even less detail than the coils of rope on the balcony. The way the objects are rendered shows what is drawing the painter’s attention. He is looking at the oxen to the right, with the rest of the scene taken in by his peripheral vision.

Torre Galli, Wine Bags by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

Torre Galli, Wine Bags by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

Sargent painted the balcony from its side in another watercolor, Torre Galli, Wine Bags. In this case our attention is directed toward the columns and over the balcony.  The coiled ropes are not rendered as distinct. And the red-colored skin bags (for carrying wine), which hang from the ropes and litter the floor, are painted as indistinct shapes of color.

The eye can be directed in these paintings by obscuring objects, which can be done either by the manner of rendering or by using wet paper before applying the paint. In the latter case the colors tend to merge without distinct border and the objects become less distinct. The experimental rendering (for Sargent) of objects as indistinct forms, such as in the Torre Galli paintings, is never carried into modernist territory. Objects are not reduced to mere geometric forms, and even when part of a painting is rendered indistinctly another part renders it in visual representation. Nor was he ever interested in abstraction for its own sake. Until the end Sargent believed in the traditional elements of a painting, particularly light.

The Master and his Pupils by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

The Master and his Pupils by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

It is striking, however, how many of the watercolors have people with obscured or barely rendered faces. Examples include Bedouin Women (1905-96), Mending a Sail (1905-06) and even the late oil, The Master and his Pupils (1914) (right), a canvas influenced in subject matter and technique by his outdoor watercolor work. In that painting the people are off in the distance and facing away from us. It is the canvas we can see, and in the foreground is a stream filled with rocks and a riverbank.

Bedouin Mother by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. 190-06. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

Bedouin Mother by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. 1905-06. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

Maybe the most arresting example of Sargent’s intentional obscuring of faces is in the North African painting Bedouin Mother (left). Although the painting is “about” the two figures, neither can be seen. It looks as though a large shadow coming from the left is falling over their heads and shoulders. Only the woman’s lower arms and hands and he baby’s legs can be seen, in front of the lower part of the woman’s robe. The figures are framed by a dark hill in front of a lighter one, both in triangular shapes. The flow of the robe is defined not only by the changes of color but also by broad dark lines, using the same color as the lines and forms (made indistinct by wetting the paper) in the lower background. If the artist were not know, one could be persuaded that it was an early post-impressionist work.

The items in the Exhibition are arranged thematically, not chronologically. This allows comparison of how Sargent treated the same or similar material at different times. The major groupings include:

The Bridge of Sighs by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. c1903-04. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

The Bridge of Sighs by John Sargent Singer. (Watercolor on paper. c1903-04. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

  • Paintings of Venice. These include some of the earliest works from the Exhibition. They are all painted from inside a gondola. It is the water level (and the water itself) that is emphasized, not the city’s monumental architecture. Paintings are cropped to eliminate the imposing formal parts of buildings (as All’Ave Maria, above). Or the architectural details are minimally rendered as is the face of the famous archway in The Bridge of Sighs (right).

Daphne by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts.) Click to enlarge.

  • Italian Villa Gardens. The subjects of these paintings, which must have evoked Sargent’s nostalgia from his boyhood in Florence and Rome, find stone statuary or columns and vases surrounded by cultivated plants. Usually the stone works are highly defined, illuminated by bright sun. The greenery is usually more abstractly drawn (except, see Gourds above). The very whitest parts of these works represent the paper itself without pigment. At least in the Brooklyn Museum part of these two collections, however, Sargent used no wax resist to protect it and instead relied on careful brushwork.
  • The “Bedouin” Paintings. Sargent painted these works during the trips he undertook to research the “Triumph of Religion” murals for the Boston Public Library. Exotic lifestyle and clothing are emphasized.
  • Water Craft. Evidently interested in boat craft from early hearing of his grandfather’s business, Sargent painted a series of pictures of water craft from the water level (much like the viewpoint of his Venice paintings). Sargent generally renders the rippling water abstractly and focuses attention on the light as it strikes the white hauls. See Melon Boats and White Ships (both below).
Corfu A Rainy Day

Corfu: A Rainy Day by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1909. Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

  • Vacation Scenes. Sargent often vacationed with fellow painters or his niece. During these days he painted scenes of his fellow travelers in intimate settings. In Corfu: A Rainy Day (right), for example, he shows Wilfrid de Glehn reading while his wife sleeps, her feet resting in his lap. In these scenes Sargent has wholly abandoned the dramatic portrait style he perfected.
  • Mountain Landscapes. Sargent painted numerous vistas of mountains (usually with quick bold strokes as in Mountain Fire, above) and detailed scenes of streams running over brooks. He used his experiments with color and light to inform oils as well (see The Master and his Pupils, above).
  • The Quarry. In 1911 Sargent visited the famous marble quarry above Carrara, Italy, in the Apuan Alps. Fascinated as he was by the reflection of light on stone, he made the quarry the centerpiece of these paintings with the miners small incidental characters. See Carrara: Quarry I and Carrara: Marmo Statuario, both below.
Edward Darley Boit by John Sargent Singer. (Oil on canvas. 1908. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

Edward Darley Boit by John Sargent Singer. (Oil on canvas. 1908. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

In addition to the watercolors the Exhibition contains eight oils by Sargent. Two of them (one of Brooklyn Museum President Aaron Augustus Healy (1907) and one of Edward Darley Boit (right)) are traditional portraits of the men who bought the first collection. The stand in contrast to the free use of light, brushwork and colors that Sargent allowed himself only in works for himself. They perhaps also show that while Sargent had achieved a mastery at this style of portraiture, the energy had left. This may explain why he was so eager to leave the studio and portraits.

The other oils directly relate to the watercolors and Sargent’s new attitude toward his art that his release from commission painting allowed him. There are three “portraits” of artists painting: An Out-of-Door Study (1889), An Artist in his Studio (1903) and The Master and his Pupils (above), all of which show artists painting with a relaxed enthusiasm, something entirely alien to the kind of pandering that Sargent felt he had to do for his plutocratic clients. The two outdoor scenes are visual studies in contours and harmonic colors, things that Fry claimed Sargent had no interest in.

The other final three oils (Dolce Far Niente  (above), Head of an Arab (1891) and Val d’Aosta, A Stream over Rocks (c1909) (below), all show how he could transfer the freedom he achieved through watercolors back into oils. The last one might be the most interesting of this group in this regard because Sargent uses oils to paint a translucent scene, the bottom of a stream through running water. He probably attempted to oil to show that his visual acuity, when it came to light diffusing through colors, was such that he was not limited to particular media to achieve a particular visual result.

Val d'Aosta (A Stream over Rocks) by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. c1909. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

Val d’Aosta (A Stream over Rocks) by John Singer Sargent. (Oil on canvas. c1909. Brooklyn Museum.) Click to enlarge.

Do these Works Add to Sargent’s Stature?

Recently there has been something of a warming in the generally tepid acceptance of Sargent among academics and other arbiters of high culture. Much of this has been owing to the work of Richard Ormond. Of course in our post-modern era, there are no longer generally accepted principles of aesthetics any more than other old-fashioned notions (such as civic responsibility, for example). In looking to experts, it’s always good to keep in mind that there are university courses in the history of television sit-coms and there is a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell.

Melon Boats by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c 1905. Brooklyn Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

Melon Boats by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c 1905. Brooklyn Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

I insert these observations here because many aspects of the watercolors are reminiscent of contemporary commercialized pop pictures (the kind that are found in hotel/motel chains). Of course commercial pop art consumes even acknowledged masters so the fact that our age prefers to recycle rather than create ideas (and refuses to recycle limited resources) should have nothing to do with evaluating Sargent’s century old work.

Roger Fry’s argument, boiled down to essence, is that the best and leading artists of the time began re-evaluating fundamental concepts of art and the relation of the canvas to the viewer. Sargent did not participate in that re-evaluation as radically or in the same tradition as the artists that Fry championed. (It’s worth noting that Fry himself championed principally French modernists. He did not advocate movements from Central Europe or elsewhere. He was a cheerleader for a new way at looking at faces and landscapes. He  did not argue that Art should deal with the irrational or the poor. And even in England, his rather limited advocacy failed to re-direct art in the way that Ruskin’s criticism did.)

But it’s not true that Sargent did not engage in experimentation, and he did so relatively late in life. The watercolors offer many examples of how his work veered into new (although not radically new) directions. I choose one aspect here: Sargent’s treatment of light on white.

White Ships by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1908. Brooklyn Museum.) This is the only watercolor from the Brooklyn Museum collection of the Exhibition that shows use of wax resist. (Click to enlarge.)

White Ships by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. c1908. Brooklyn Museum.) This is the only watercolor from the Brooklyn Museum collection of the Exhibition that shows use of wax resist. (Click to enlarge.)

In Sargent’s portraits the backgrounds are almost always dark. This of course is a convention that goes back as far as light was used to model the figure (and especially the face) portrayed, famously, for example, in Rembrandt’s portraits. The light that is thrown on the figure then defines the features. In Sargent’s case, bright white clothing often helps achieve a dramatic effect especially on large full body portraits. See, for example, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (above) and Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897). In addition, white or near white clothing can be fluffed or wrapped in ways to suggest elegance or other attributes. See The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, above. In any of these cases the white or lighter pigment is added to the canvas. In Sargent’s watercolors the white is not a pigment, but rather the paper itself. It is the shadow that is cast on the white that Sargent applies. And to do this Sargent applies shadows in broad abstract shapes that intersect, intensifying the darkness, in the reverse of the way light appears to us. The interplay of the white and shadows becomes a two dimension design in itself and flattens the scene.

The “design” effect of the shadows on white is take further in Corfu: Lights and Shadows (below). The shadow of a tree is the central design. And particularly as you look closer, the perspective of the cottage is created only by the color of the shadow.

Corfu: Lights and Shadows by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1909. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

Corfu: Lights and Shadows by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1909. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

The quarry paintings come nearly to being abstract in their use of light and color. The figures of the miners are reduced to the barest minimum.

Carrara: The Quarry I by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1911. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

Carrara: The Quarry I by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1911. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

In Carrara: Marmo Statuario (below) there are no figures and only the title suggest what the subject of the painting is.

Carrara: Marmo Statuario by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1911. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

Carrara: Marmo Statuario by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1911. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

Finally, we reach one of the most interesting works in the Exhibition (especially from the viewpoint of Sargent’s role as innovator), La Blaneria (below). This painting elevates a pedestrian scene, linens drying on a clothesline, into a design of white and muted colors against a green and brown background. The muted colors show how the linens hang from the line but also make a near abstract design when considered simply as patterns. Indeed, there is nothing inherently interesting about the scene, except for the design produced by the shadows.

La Blancheria by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

La Blancheria by John Singer Sargent. (Watercolor on paper. 1910. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Click to enlarge.

In a broad sense, Sargent in fact moved in relative conformity with the general trends in the visual arts in the first decade of the twentieth century. He did so slowly and never completely abandoned the representational function he believed art had. Yet, he examined how design, color and contour in themselves made a work of art, even if they also “represented” something real, something that could be seen.

The fact that Sargent did not strictly follow the tradition set out by the French should not particularly matter. Progress in art, no more than descent in evolution, is not a linear matter. And there is no single school or movement that defines the single valid course for artistic inquiry. Sargent rejected the tradition of the French (one that he had never really adopted, and in any event long parted ways with, since the days of Madame X). Yet there was a tradition that he followed and pushed the boundaries of. That tradition was developing across the Atlantic, where Sargent would spend the next phase of his career, and was taken up by such painters as William Merritt Chase, who in turn seems to have influenced Sargent’s own approach to light, and the subjects that produce them,  in his watercolors.

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. 1886. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)