In the summer of 1882, a young English critic sent a copy of a book she had just published, in which she had argued that art must yield nothing to conventional facility, to a painter-friend traveling on the Continent. He thanked her in a meditative letter, observing, by way of agreement, that “there are certain times when talent entirely oven comes thought or poetry.” The critic was Violet Paget, who called herself “Vernon Lee”: her correspondent was the young American painter John Singer Sargent. Little did he realize that he was formulating, better than anyone else ever would, the chief reproach to be leveled at his own work for the next hundred years.

That Sargent soon became aware of such failings, yet remained powerless on the whole to correct them, is not the greatest puzzle in a career abounding in paradoxes. One such paradox may be glimpsed in the contrary reactions of Henry James and Roger Fry to...

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