The Candid Mr. Sargent On Sargent’s PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS AND FRIENDS at the Met (through Oct.4, 2015) : Art/Write By Peter Pitzele

What has captured me about Sargent’s portraits is a quality that relates to candor.

Candor is the Latin word for white. From candor comes the word candid, meaning straightforward or honest, and later usage, as in the candid camera, suggests the unfeigned and unprepared. In a way candor is related to trust.

In painting no color reflects more light than white, while at the other end black most absorbs lit. [1] No painter before Sargent or since so exalted white. So what then is its connection to candor?

Sargent lived in the first age of electrification, and whether in the home or the theater, he experienced the dazzling range of artificial lighting. His attraction to white is an attraction  to the drama of light as a selective force. Spotlights intensify; to feature white is to feature light, its revelatory power. (In this sense Sargent is of his age: Turner, Whistler, Manet, Monet, and Cezanne were all artists not just of light but of lighting.)

This quality of lighting lends to Sargents’s portraits an effect for which the word “striking” applies. To stand before them is to be struck by the aliveness of a particular moment. In the portraits it is often a moment of revelation or disclosure, unrehearsed and evanescent. Perhaps only in the dawning age of the camera was it possible for a person to see, frozen in time, the fleeting expressions of the human face. Sargent, without benefit of working from photographs, however seems able to capture that very quality of fleetingness that by its very transience seems so authentic.

In Sargent’s portraits the expression he captures—and surely in part inspires— reveals individual character, idiosyncratic and convincing.  (In this deep interest in character, Sargent found in Henry James a writer of similar spirit. See for example, James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” one of the great character studies of his age.) Again and again Sargent’s portraits have the irrefutable authority of having been deeply responsive and faithful to their subjects, revealing them not with flattery but kindness.

The portraits also have us believe that character which we all know may be dissembled may also be visible in unguarded moments. In those moments of disclosure that no artist I know was so consistently able to capture, one sees the mysterious truths of human expression. In this sense Sargent’s work may be said to be candid, meaning both sincere and unfeigned, or perhaps that he is able to evoke the candid in others.

While we may sense in the smile of the Mona Lisa some human ambiguity, the siting of that figure in otherworldly space and her deep indrawn stillness have something beyond the human in them. In his portrait of Madame Alluard-Jouan, (1882) on the other hand, she belongs fully to our world. And it is not just her mouth that expresses character, so does the slight tilt of her head; the pallid whiteness of her skin seems to tell of mourning, while those tiny white highlights in her coiffure seem to hint at levity. But most of all it is in the look in the eyes, in her steady stare, that I feel her openness to the artist, their shared candor.




In Hebrew the word for face is always plural–panim. This linguistic fact bears witness to an actuality: only death freezes the human face into expressionlessness. (I am writing this on a commuter train to New York and the man across from me is sleeping, and not even in sleep does the face lose its changefulness.) The speed of Sargent’s hand matched the speed of his eye. He needed to develop a painting style that allowed him to render the human world as it appeared to him in all its cinematic, revelatory fluidity.

For Sargent the human face above all held the deepest fascination. One feels in his work that his sitters, as in this case Mme Alluard-Jouen, have no need, as T.S Eliot says, “to prepare a face to meet the face that we meet.” They seem to let something come through. In this open state Sargent seems to inspire, expressions rise and move freely over the face as they do in the presence of a trusted friend. This is the art of candor. 

[1] I am aware that neither black nor white are technically colors.