It’s the last days of the John Singer Sargent show at the Seattle Art Museum and the place is standing room only. Patrons jostle for a look while clutching audio-guides to their ears. There’s lots to talk about. People are in a state of excitement and awe.
I’m standing in front of Tents at Lake O’Hara, an oil painted in 1916. In this painting Sargent tackles sunlight on two white camp-tents. Light on the ruffles of the tents. Light through the transparency of a tent’s canvas. Light inside the tents. Light through campfire-smoke on the tents. Sargent relished the challenge of painting white things. Across the gallery, if you can get to them, there are oils and watercolors of the quarry at Carrara. Blocks and chips of marble juxtaposed to reflect light one to the other in the burning Tuscan sun.
Near the entrance to the exhibit there’s a small study known as Head of Aesop after Velasquez. It’s a copy that Sargent made as a student on a trip to the Prado in Madrid. It shows the powerful influence of the master on the mind of a youth. Economical and meaningful strokes decide the form. The hair is blocked in zones and masses which amply give the feeling of softness and volume. Sargent was teaching himself habits which he took to his more ambitious works throughout his life. A room contains all of the Wertheimer family portraits — elegant belle époque adults and lively charming children with living hands together with family dogs with personality and fire in their eyes. Everywhere the stroke is right and brave. The color sometimes delicate, often rich. The compositions simple and unaffected, the drawing cursory and without flaw.
Sargent’s surfaces give evidence of a dynamic activity where decisions are made during the struggle, and where no struggle is allowed to appear. Fresh at all costs. Quality is alive and well and hanging on walls in Seattle.
PS: “Make the best of an emergency.” (John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925)
Esoterica: Sargent was a workaholic. Letters from his Rocky Mountain trip mention discomfort and poor weather. Nevertheless he worked every day on the material that came to hand. His was an eye for what was before him and he was not shy of difficulty. “Sargent’s art owed much to an idea — originally his mother’s — that the spirit can will into existence all the fineness it requires. Talent counts for much, but effort counts for more.” (Carter Ratcliff)
The current Sargent pages for the Seattle Art Museum are at
(RG note) Several artists noted that there are not many Sargent paintings at the above site, nor are there many on the net. This is because many Sargent paintings are still in copyright. In order to see them you must buy one of the books. There are some good ones listed on the site mentioned above.
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Blew me away
The Sargent show was at the National Gallery in Washington DC last spring. I was not familiar with his work and couldn’t have named any of it. Somehow I ended up at the Sargent show on a quiet day and was able to spend lots of time looking. The show blew me away; the oils, the watercolors, the simple grace, power, the colors, The Watercolors! Everything seemed to have an inner power and life. I fell in love (again) with art, with Sargent, with everything. That show was a catalyst for me. The catalogue is good, but the truth is that you have to see it in person. Now I want to see every painting of interest to me in person, there is no substitute. Thank you John Singer Sargent.
Mary Ann Mountain, Seattle, USA
I too loved the quarries, and the tent was my favorite in spite of the grandeur of the portraits. I took my kids for “culture day” and they were fascinated with everything. I guess they think all art is made in a basement studio. We do this often and will do even more. An art event, lunch and conversation. As a camper, I felt the hot sun through the tent, could almost smell it and the woods, the piney smell, the peaty soil. The composition of that picture was nigh perfect, the angles and colors. I appreciate his expertise with the brush in his oils, but I relished his watercolors – guess it is because I am into watercolors. They are so fresh.
Facility without being facile
Cassandra James, Texas, USA
It’s all about light, isn’t it? I’ve thought about this a lot and decided that painting is about capturing the quality of light and evoking an emotional response in the viewer, not necessarily the emotional response we had when we viewed the subject, but somehow tapping into a broader consciousness and eliciting a genuine response – not sentimentality or shock. Those are not enduring emotions. Sargent certainly had a command of his craft, but he was able to make the work appear fresh and spontaneous, without being facile. Aye, there’s the nut. There was a firm foundation of authentic drawing under all, with, he admitted, a few strokes added toward the end for flash. Sometimes it didn’t work. Facility without being facile. This is the true test.
Sargent verbally impaired?
I’ve heard that Sargent didn’t have much to say and did not speak well. Perhaps he was verbally — and therefore auditorily impaired and possibly unusually gifted in the visual department.
(RG note) While it’s difficult to do posthumous bicameral tests there is some anecdotal material that might indicate this situation. Evan Charteris, an early biographer, said that Sargent spoke “slower and with more difficulty than anyone I have ever met.” In the excellent book John Singer Sargent by Carter Ratcliff he quotes Henry James saying, “He [Sargent] suggested his theory of art in a single sentence: ‘You see things that way (pointing slightly to the left) and I see them this way (pointing slightly to the right).’ ” But it is also valuable to note that by the age of twenty, Sargent, who was born in Europe and traveled incessantly with his well-off family, spoke English, Italian, French, and passable German. Also, throughout his life he wrote a considerable number of letters, particularly to his family.
Value of the stroke
The lesson that Sargent’s work gives is the prime value of the individual stroke. Paintings are made of a collection of strokes and particularly those in the focal areas of a painting ought to be right on the mark. Often it is just two or three strokes in a Sargent painting that make the painting into an exciting whole.
It seems to me that Sargent was way ahead of everybody else, including Manet and later the Cubists. He evoked a great deal of jealousy during his life. His prices were the highest, and he could get them. (Sandra England)
(RG note) Sargent trained his eye to see gradations over surfaces, transparencies, and reflected light that a less highly-tuned person might tend to erase from perception. It looks to me that artists such as Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, to name but a few, were either unaware of these nuances or chose not to include them in their work. Manet, an artist who Sargent admired, was barely aware of reflected light, for example, and was more interested in the solidity produced by local color. Monet was another situation. Sargent and Monet fed a bit on one another. There are paintings extant of Monet painting in the out-of-doors that Sargent executed in the light-filled style of Monet.
Too wet to ship
Mikki, Florida, USA
Sargent had one thing that most of us are not blessed with. His family had wealth. Johnny did not have to push, claw and fight to market his work. He could afford to scrape a canvas down several times until it was exactly the way he wanted it. He could work on one piece for several months. Monet, on the other hand, was one step ahead of the law… feeding a barn full of kids. He had to make everything he cranked out count. France had debtor’s prisons and he was very aware of the chain gangs… it gave him an extra incentive to be productive.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never trade what I have for Sargent’s wealth… I have the joy of knowing all I can do is sold in most cases before it is dry (I paint in oils). He never had that joy. The wonderful feeling of a gallery phoning to say another one sold before we could get the hanger wire on it. It is still too wet to ship to the client. There is a blessing from knowing you are wanted that for exceeds the security of wealth.
Uses of brain theory
Josanne Van Hees
Left and Right Brain Theory is an important study and carried further is valuable for use in therapy. One side of the brain is generally used to store information and one side to create. There are quite a few people who store and create on both sides of the brain. That is called mixed dominance. It is often found in children who have learning difficulties in school and are often diagnosed as dyslexic. They are often called stupid, are generally mistreated and their lives sometimes go in very unhappy directions. Yet, very often they are of above average intelligence and some have the capabilities of being brilliant.
The way we move our eyes is a good indicator of what part of the brain’s stored or created information we are accessing. Eyes up to the left and you are accessing stored visual images. Up to the right is created images. Eyes to the left ear are accessing stored auditory messages and to the right is where created “stories” are. People with mixed dominance have to use their eyes in a back and forth, left to right fashion or the information will not be accessed.
For some reason, and very often, children with mixed dominance don’t use their eyes in this way. So a lot of the information that they see or hear is stored but not readily available to them. They are then perceived to have a learning problem. If they are embarrassed in school, which they usually are, their eyes will go down, which is where the emotions are accessed. And in this case it’s usually unpleasant emotions. When you are in your emotions, one is not processing verbal information and if the eyes are down you are not seeing either. So, you can see how a learning problem could accelerate.
An example of someone my psychologist husband worked with was a 35 year old school janitor. He had never learned to read, even though he had been through every remedial reading class that the school board offered. Don had him change the way he held his head, which was habitually tilted to one side when he was conversing. Then he ‘anchored’ and changed the way the fellow used his eyes and in 4 to 6 sessions, the fellow was reading the newspaper.
Contributed by Arla J. Swift, Harrison Lake, BC, Canada
“According to the Russian formalists, the purpose of art is to “defamiliarize” the world. The word “ostranenie” (ohsh-truh-NYEHN-yay), used in this sense, means the “making strange” of objects and perceptions that are familiar. In this sense, art has profound psychological and cultural functions. Indeed, without “crazy artists” to make the familiar seem strange, we might still be huddled in our caves, waiting for the hunters to return with some raw meat to get us through the night.
“Ostranenie” can be a perceptual cleansing tool. As poet William Blake put it, if our ‘doors of perception’ were to be cleansed, we would see the world as it really is: infinite. So when somebody asks why you are staring at that poplar tree or why you seem fascinated with the white noise between radio channels, tell them that a little “ostraneni” can make the familiar seem marvelous.”
Lee, West Virginia, USA
One of my teachers, Tony van Hasselt, stressed that “the texture at the edge or value change, tells what it is”. That bit has been very helpful to me as I think through a painting. And I am surprised how little is taught about it… it is a very key point. In transparent watercolor it is easy to manipulate edges to hard, soft or rough, whatever is appropriate to the subject; glass, bunny rabbits or tree bark. Another point that I stress when teaching is that when we look at something not every plane is in focus… only one. So the planes out of focus should have lost edges. Portrait painters have been using this all along to paint “around the back of the head”. For example if we were to render a bowling ball, the part nearest us is most likely in focus, while the perimeter would be slightly out of focus since it is in a plane 1/2 diameter away.
You may be interested to know that artists from 80 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001. That includes Arla J. Swift of Harrison Lake, BC, Canada who also tells us that the Japanese word wabi means a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole. And Brian Prezl of New York who went to the Sargent exhibit in Washington six times — that’s two more times than he saw the first Star Wars. And Gordon Hynes who is going out to find some whites to work on. And Menahem Erez who tells us “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”