The rich and famous that JSS painted were on the top of the social heap as was the court of King Philip that Velasquez painted. Whereas the courtiers of King Philip were in no doubt about their standing in the universe, the people of Sargent's world are actors, playing at being a king or assuming the airs of a corrupt and decadent European cardinal (in the case of the gynecologist dressed in scarlet) and know they have to act their part well if the public is to be convinced. A kind of aestheticism pervades their poses. They can at times appear to be pretentious. Something you would never say of Philip the 1st. He doesn't have to pretend. The huge fortunes of the Gilded Age have raised these select few to the top but in the boom and bust economy of that era their position in the world is no divine right. Sargent's paintings are a kind of documentary of the Transatlantic Bourgeoisie of the late 19th century(he stopped doing portraits in 1907), but the work has something of the puff piece: he has no desire to deflate their self -image as Goya was able to do to the Spanish Royalty. He gives them what they wanted. This acceptance of the values of the subject seems to have a regressive effect on his stylistic development. Sargent does not grow as an artist, either technically or spiritually. He never surpassed The "Boit Sisters" in any way. Technically, there is everything that you'd find in his later work and something that the later work doesn't have, a certain success at making the viewer conscious that the image is an illusion. This effect is in part due to several factors: a majority of the image looming out from obscurity, its references to Las Meninas, which is itself a profound meditation on seeing and reality, and a simplicity of the mark making.
I keep thinking of Alice Neel's models whose clothes hang on their bodies. They slouch, and drape themselves across the sparse furniture. Some sitters are fatigued, others angst ridden.... and all very mortal. Sargent is taking his social models from the past, as did so many artists of that period, but this posing is just a mask, a cover up that allows them to hide their mortality. It was the Pre-Raphaelites archaism that ruled the day in England. Although, on the one hand, Sargent's sitters are very real, because of Sargent's technical abilities, on the other hand they are a cast of characters derived from Shakespeare's lords and ladies.
The mural of soldiers blinded by mustard gas in the World War is an unlikely statement from an artist for whom the indulgence of observing pleasurable scenery was the core of his visual language. In this mural he did confront the horror of it all and the result is an image that for me is emblematic of the end of an era. Painted in muted tones, the soldiers are also rendered undifferentiated by their bandages, which mask their faces and uniforms. The landscape is war torn and desolate. Gone is the world of wit and play, of garden parties or sunlit Italian vacations. The subtleties of moods or the assumption of theatrical poses is effaced by the horror of mass annihilation. The 20th century is there with all its uniformity and scouring of individual particularities.
I have pursued the critical tack that Sargent and his sitter are out of touch with reality. The mass warfare of WW1 and the revolution of the working classes would wipe the smugness from the faces of the rich and stylistically, the art of the 20th century would show the traces of effort, labor and science. However, the agonic posing and strutting, the exquisiteness of the sentiment of exquisite moments of that Bourgeoisie cannot be duplicated today, and, as that world recedes further back in time, an art that describes it so perfectly cannot be dismissed. No matter how much one might find that his work suffers from a kind of false-consciousness, I cannot help but feel a pang of regret that this world, which Sargent renders so palpably, is forever gone...