Big Daddy

Linda Nochlin

  • American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America by Robert Hughes
    Harvill, 635 pp, £35.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 18 604637 5

There often seems to be a connection between the style of an art historian or critic and that of his or her favourite artist. Reading Tim Clark on Courbet, it is easy to see the reasons why the writer chose his subject: iconoclasm, a bold and aggressive rejection of stylistic precedence and traditional modes of expression are common to both. In the case of Robert Hughes, author of the monumental American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, the artist of choice would be John Singer Sargent, brilliant pictorial chronicler of the beau monde of the 19th century. Like Sargent, Hughes is a brilliant crowd-dazzler and populariser; like Sargent, he is unadventurous in his choice of precedents; like Sargent, a dashing but flattering wielder of the brush, he is a writer whose pen rarely causes pain or difficulty to his readers. I am sure one of the reasons Hughes ‘gets’ Sargent so well, without condescending to him as most academic art historians do, is that he seems to identify so strongly with him. Of the fashionable bravura brushwork and stereotypically aristocratic feminine charm offered by the portraitist’s Lady Agnew, Hughes declares: ‘there is a perfect match between the decorous luxuriance of Lady Agnew’s pose, the creaminess of the paint, and the shadow of tension on her face. For that, one can forgive a lot of the routine rich and famous work that Sargent himself would later disparage as his “paughtraits”.’ One might say the same of Robert Hughes, with a few modifications to account for differences of medium.

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