« AnkstesnisTęsti »
At least as much as is given in this brief description is necessary to an understanding of Mr. Sargent's subject. The work now in place illustrates Confusion, the first part of his theme. Unity, in which Christ preaching the gospel will be the subject, and Conventionality, depicting the rites and symbolism of early Christianity, will follow. There are details, both of subject and of pictorial representation, in the part under consideration that I have not touched upon, but we may now not unintelligibly speak of the work in its artistic aspects.
The work as a whole is like a casket of jewels. Let not conventional theories prevent us from seeing that it is intensely decorative. There is a difference between it and such decoration as that of which the work of Puvis de Chavannes may serve as an example. Beautifully tinted and chastely designed papers are suitable for wall-hangings, but so, too, are richly embroidered stuffs. The difference reduced to its lowest terms may be expressed by such a comparison. The Puvis picture is admirably simple. The Sargent pictures, though
they comprise pieces of painting of great simplicity of treatment, are complicated; but they are brilliant, almost dazzling, in effect. You may prefer one sort of work to another, but it is not fair to condemn either for its difference from the one you like better, if both are good. I fancy that here in America, unaccustomed as we are to palaces, we may forget some of the magnificently gilded and painted rooms we have seen in Europe. Readers may recall one or two where grand effects were produced by a profusion of ornament and glowing color. And the East? No doubt Mr. Sargent had in mind the jeweled architecture of India, the lacquers of Japan, and the polychromatic temples of the Egyptians.
There are some things in the work that are finer than any other fine things, and there are three imperfections. The choice of red as the color for the wings of the cherubim I cannot but think unfortunate. I know that to change them would upset a part of the general colorscheme, and so involve in a measure the painting of something different from what we now see. But if they had been orange instead of
red, they could have been made to appear luminous in the decoration; and as they are now, they are not. Red, by its inherent quality, is a dark, non-luminous pigment; it can be made to glow only by skilful juxtaposition of combative tints. The effect of the mass where the cherubim are flying before Jehovah is dark. Would not a light, a luminous mass, have been better in this important central position if it could have been attained? Might not even the uncovered face of Jehovah have been better? As it is, too, one does not see the heads of the cherubim. They are «lost, and the wings seem to be flying alone in a whirl impelled by some hidden centripetal force. The second defect is that the distinctly dark parts of the composition, while it is easy to see that they are not actually very low in tone, appear so dark that their form is not clear. This is so in the case of the whole figure of Neith, though the head is plain enough. In the lunette the head of the goddess Pasht is invisible. The third fault is in the Moses. No valid objection may be made to modeling this figure in relief, nor to relief
employed in other parts of the work. On the contrary, the placing of the Moses in the center of the frieze, with the importance given to it by the relief, was a masterly stroke, but the head seems small and without much dignity. In actual measurement it may be as large as the heads of the prophets, even larger, but it looks smaller. This may be partly owing to the head-dress which hems it in on each side, and it may also be that it is the result of the lighting on the modeled forms. If the shadows cast are not strong enough, or fall in the wrong way, a head may look weak that under other conditions would look strong. The body of the Moses, with the arms outstretched to grasp the tables of the law, is vigorous, imposing, and filled with a fine sense of mystery. Apart from these points, I can see nothing in Mr. Sargent's work that can be found fault with even by the hypercritical.
The particular portions of the decoration that are marked by the highest achievement, both in imaginative and technical qualities, are the figure of Astarte, the fighting archer
and the serpent, the Pharaoh, and the group of the Jews. In his portrait work Mr. Sargent has often given evidence of the possession of the most sensitive appreciation of form and color, but he has seldom, if ever, given better proof of it than in the conception and execution of this figure of Astarte. As long ago as 1880, in the early days of his artistic career, having made a winter's journey to Morocco, he exhibited in the Salon at Paris a picture called «Smoke of Ambergris,» a Moorish woman in white, holding some of the ample folds of her mantle above her head like a canopy. At her feet on the marble floor burned the ambergris, and the thin vapors, rising, filled her improvised hood as she inhaled the delicious fragrance. There was a mysterious charm in the picture, though, apparently, it was only a direct, cleverly handled study from nature, and in looking at it one felt a sensation as of the Orient brought to one's door. When I saw the Astarte at Boston I thought of this early canvas, and while there is no analogy between the two, it caused me to reflect that in the Salon picture there was an indication of the same phase of the artist's temperament that dominated him when he produced the Astarte. The love of things weird and mysterious, manifested in the fanciful portrayal of the Moorish woman, found a wider scope for expression in the mythical personality of the Phenician goddess. Originally, she was worshiped as the goddess of the moon, and the female, or productive principle.
The worship of Astarte was degraded by the Phenicians into a lascivious and wanton rite. She is depicted, therefore, not as the kindly and abundant mother of fruits and grains, like Ceres, but as the goddess of sensuality. . . . She stands upon the crescent, and a cobra is coiled at her feet. Around her is a floating blue veil. The hem of her robe is richly embroidered with gold, the ornament including figures of the sun and moon, and lions, fishes, birds, and other emblems connected with her worship. On either side of her are the columns used in her temples. Behind her is the tree of life, only the pine cones which terminate its branches, however, being visible. Through her veil may be seen, on either side of her form, a group of three priestesses, shaking the sistrum, or rattle, and swaying to the measure of a wanton and luxurious dance. At her feet are her victims, whom her lusts have lured to their ruin, a vulture
tearing at the flesh of one, and a chimæra devouring the other.1
We are told that Mr. Sargent painted this figure in a single day, and we can well believe it. It bears the marks of intrepid execution, and every part of it vibrates in harmony. 1 Handbook of the New Public Library. VOL. LII.-22.
Brain and hand must have worked in perfect unison, and the figure and its accessories seem to have been carried to completion in a single sustained effort. The insinuating charm of the face, the vague, inscrutable enticement of the figure, with its diaphanous veiling of tender, gas-like blue, fascinate the eye. The dexterity of the work is amazing, its grace is irresistible.
The portion of the ceiling which includes the zodiac and the archer struggling with the serpent is admirable in composition, movement, and color. The figure of Adonis, with his robe flying from his shoulders, seen in back view, with the head in profile, one arm drawn up to pull an arrow, and the other straight to hold the bow, is as broadly rendered as the sculpture of the ancient Greeks. It is Hellenic in conception, and appears in fine contrast with the conventionalized forms of Egyptian and Assyrian art which environ it. That, while so different in spirit from these weird, symbolical figures, it does not seem in the least out of place, affords proof of what is indeed plain throughout the decorationthe rare skill with which the artist has woven a picturesque and harmonious whole out of so many incongruous elements.
In the figure of Pharaoh the artist has adapted the conventional design of the Egyptians, placing the head and legs in profile, and the body and arms in full-face view. This figure, and that of the Assyrian king, also following archaic conventions, are represented as of great stature. In both the uncouth forms of the earliest art are so skillfully translated that they do not conflict with the realistic treatment of the nude figures of the Jews. The slight proportions of Pharaoh, the slim waist, the long arms extended, and the ferret-like face, with the long, black-encircled eye, combine to produce an impression of sinister cruelty. The massive golden crown, dome-like in shape, adds an air of majesty and power. In the treatment of this figure, as in those of the Assyrian god and lion, in the right-hand portion of the lunette, the artist has accomplished a tour de force such as has been rarely attempted. How able is this treatment is shown by the telling importance of the group of the Jews in the middle of the composition. Unlike the oppressors and their gods, they are painted life-size only, and with
as much realism as the decorative limitations allow. Here there are no problems involving the adaptation of archaic forms, and, as in the figures of the prophets, the painter appears as we know him in other work-a draftsman of force, style, and confident sureness, a col