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1898 Sargent's Apotheosis

In the wake of the recent passing of Royal Academy Presidents John Everett Millais and Frederic Leighton, critics of the Exhibition searched to identify new champions, a task made more complicated by the daunting array of 1,967 objects and an increasing heterogeneity of production, marked out by generational divides as well as national schools. William Blake Richmond, professor of painting at the Royal Academy Schools, in his lecture “Leighton, Millais and William Morris” (1898), captured the sense of a generation passing and the stakes involved when he described how “the arts of England in the short space of time covering two years have lost three great artists” and asserted that “the art of a country is the mirror of its life, of its energies and their purpose. By its achievements it gives the stamp to history.”1 Thus, it was perhaps with a sense of relief that several critics declared the Exhibition a success.2

While critics generally divided over which artists and artworks were the most noteworthy, discernible consensus emerged around the figure of John Singer Sargent, the French-trained, American-born artist who had been made an Associate of the Academy in 1894 and a full Academician in 1897. Starkly put, Sargent stood at the intersection of two distinct clusters of artists: those associated with the New English Art Club, which had formed in 1886 to provide an exhibiting platform for those artists engaged with plein-air painting and the French training associated with this method, and those whose strongest association was with the Academy and its current and former leaders (Leighton, Millais, and Edward Poynter). Sargent had been invited to join the Academy’s Hanging Committee in 1898, a sign of his rising prominence within artistic circles as well as his ability to serve, yet again, as an appeasement to rising calls for reform of the Academy. Grievances were lodged against the Academy’s tendency to favour its own; the Academy’s reviewer, for example, declared that the “reform … Lord Leighton inaugurated, has been allowed to lapse”.3

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Sargent displayed several works in the Exhibition, including individual portraits of Mrs Asher Wertheimer, Mr Francis Penrose, and Asher Wertheimer, a collection of work that led The Times to declare him “a genius”. The portrait of Asher Wertheimer drew particular praise; in the view of The Times, the canvas was “nothing short of amazing” (Fig. 1).4 The Magazine of Art asserted that: “the brilliancy of the rendering of Mr. Sargent’s sitter is a veritable triumph.”5 The Athenaeum pronounced it “a masterpiece on which all artistic eyes have been fixed since opening day.”6 Even the more progressive Speaker was unreserved in its admiration: “it is impossible to look at the Wertheimer without feeling that it is one of those revelations which stamp a picture with the mastery of genius.”7 Critics were united in praise of the artist’s ability to capture the art dealer in a life-like mode, emerging from the gloom, cigar gesturing towards the viewer, with an expression of candour on his face, one matched by the bright-eyed poodle at his hip.

While Sargent led the pack in portraiture, less consistent agreement emerged around who constituted the leading figure of literary or history painters. While critics were highly attentive to several paintings, none received the unreserved praise that Sargent’s canvases had earned. Among the most commonly cited was George Frederick Watts’ Love Triumphant (Fig. 2). The winged figure of Love, encircled by a swirling red drape, lifts his face and arms heavenwards in a moment of apotheosis. Time lies at Love’s feet, face downwards and his right hand loosely holding his scythe while his left hand is cupped by that of Death, whose pale wrapped figure lies outstretched on the ground, her upturned face unseeing. A.C.E. Carter, writing for The Art-Journal, considered this allegorical canvas to be “the climax of his [Watts] powers … In its solemnity and dignity the work stands alone, and in that respect is another illustration of the master’s splendid isolation.”8

Poynter’s The Skirt Dance, based on a smaller scale oil titled The Ionian Dance that the artist had shown at the Academy in 1895, was also frequently mentioned by critics. The subject, an imagined moment from Pompeian villa life, features a young lithe woman in a diaphanous dress, delicately demonstrating the steps of a dance to a group of women gathered around her on a marble bench. The handling of the human form amply demonstrated the President’s ongoing commitment to figure drawing, and reinforced his dedication to this key pedagogical tradition of the Academy.9

The younger generation of artists also drew the support of critics. Those writers aligned with more conservative journals typically singled out Byam Shaw, whom The Magazine of Art described as “already to be forming a school: if so, it will at least prove, in some measure, a corrective to the ‘sloppiness’ which has, unhappily, engulfed so many of the younger generation,” a dig at the broad facture associated with French training,10 as well as Herbert Draper, whom The Art-Journal perceived as “destined … to be succeeded by some great achievement”.11

But this was a younger generation with evident debts to their elders. Shaw was positioned as a follower of the Pre-Raphaelites, while Draper was associated with the lineage of “the romantic-classical school of Leighton”. Draper received considerable attention for his painting of the Icarus myth, The Lament for Icarus, which shows the tragic figure of the young man splayed out on the rocks, in a pose reminiscent of Christ descending from the cross, his arms still caught in the straps to which his ambitious wings have been mounted, while three young nude maidens, their white flesh contrasting with the swarthiness of Icarus, gaze upon him with looks of concern. Draper, who had studied at the Royal Academy Schools, exemplified Poynter’s principles of figure drawing as well as Leighton’s grand compositions.12 He gained further national recognition when The Lament for Icarus was purchased for the nation through the Chantrey Bequest, funds left to the Academy to acquire finished works of art executed in Great Britain.

This investment of the Academy and less progressive critics in the younger sons of prominent fathers, both metaphorical and literal, explains why writer M.H. Spielmann closed his overview of the Academy Exhibition by pointing to a relatively obscure artist, Hugh Rivière, the son of Briton Rivière, as being among the hopes of the coming century.13

  1. Sir William Blake Richmond, Leighton, Millais and William Morris, A Lecture Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898), 5.↩︎

  2. See, for example, “The Royal Academy Exhibition.-I.”, The Magazine of Art 21 (May 1898): 421.↩︎

  3. “Art:  The Sky-Line at the Royal Academy”, The Academy 53 (14 May 1898): 531. This writer was perhaps Frederick Wedmore, who was affiliated with “New Criticism”, which supported the circle of the New English Art Club. Meaghan Clarke, Critical Voices: Women and Art Criticism in Britain 1880–1905 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2015), 130.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy (First Notice)”, The Times, 30 April 1898, 14.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy Exhibition.-I.”, The Magazine of Art 21 (May 1898): 422.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy (Fourth Notice)”, The Athenaeum 3685, 11 June 1898, 762.↩︎

  7. “The Royal Academy”, The Speaker 17, 7 May 1898, 575.↩︎

  8. A.C.E. Carter, The Art-Journal (1898): 172.↩︎

  9. Carter, The Art-Journal (1898): 164. Poynter’s first teaching position had been at the Slade School of Art, where he had greatly emphasised the study of the human figure, even initiating a life study class for female students. He was particularly insistent on the ability of artists to be able to capture the human body in fluid motion. Edward Poynter, Ten Lectures on Art (London: Chapman and Hall, 1880), 107–108.↩︎

  10. “The Royal Academy Exhibition.-II.”, The Magazine of Art 21 (June 1898): 469.↩︎

  11. Carter, The Art-Journal (1898): 182.↩︎

  12. Alfred Baldry featured several of Draper’s figure drawings for The Lament for Icarus in his article on “Our Rising Artists” in The Magazine of Art in 1898. Simon Toll, Herbert Draper, 1863–1920 (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2003), 92–93. “The Royal Academy”, The Speaker 17, 7 May 1898, 576.↩︎

  13. M.H. Spielmann, “The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1898, Introduction”, Royal Academy Pictures 1898 (London:  Cassell and Co., 1898), ii.↩︎

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Explore the 1898 catalogue