John Singer Sargent painted Two Girls in White Dresses between 1909 and 1911 while on a trip in the Italian Alps. The painting shows the same model twice, fresh and study-like, foreshortened and sprawled in a zigzagging swoosh across a patch of alpine meadow. Along with electrifying brush-flashes and satiny dress-folds, it embodies Sargent’s late-life retirement from formal portraiture in favour of outdoor work. I call this the wild and rhythmic culmination of the Golden Age of White.
White, the non-colour — without colour, colour of light, colour of limestone and virginity — is the painter’s go-to for sunlight, snow, milk and the christening gown. It’s the painter’s equivalent of too much light — the blinding blow out, the burst — or the formal study of nothingness. Or is it? Oysters and a mountain col, the shepherd’s spring lamb, a bleached beach at magic hour — these things aren’t really white, are they?
As painters, we must resist the urge to lay in what we think we see, and instead allow white’s neighbours to fill in the blank. In this case, white is cast with local or reflected colours. Mix in a pinprick of yellow for a warm highlight or magenta for a cool one. An adjacent complement will make the light brighter, lighter — whiter. Opacity and transparency in white, thick or thin, signals the eye and the imagination. Scumble it tinted over textured colour and let the colour go to work for you. White brings along her fresh-start meanings, nestled between ocular rest and excitement.
In the case of Sargent’s two girls, billowing skirts attach to our hearts and roll around with us in the Italian sunlight, his exquisite sleight of hand disguised as realism. Thirteen years before the girls, Sargent painted 22-year-old London socialite Caterina Vlasto. She’s leaning in the low light against Sargent’s Bechstein piano. Her skin, her silk, the ivory piano keys deliver the promise of white in all its perfection. The flash of the fan she holds is even whiter, brighter. It’s golden.
PS: “The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.” (Lao Tzu)
Esoterica: In the 1950s, the New York School jumped on the white-wagon and gave us formal studies like Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting, 1951 — three adjoining canvases painted in flat white latex, open to the relentless trickery of the individual eyeball for shadow-play and reason. In my own work, I’ve often been asked about the meaning of paintings that appear to be all white. I see these works as something between the attachments and rescue of the dress folds of my heroes, and the technical eye-massage feats of the mid-century. Light, raking across ambling brushwork, soaked passages and moments of sheen, bouncing warms and cools and non-whites impersonating whites are part of the meditation. The fluidity, the quiet, the sleeper, the underdog, the thump of infinity: “Where do you get your metallic paint?” asked a recent studio visitor — an artist, aged 12. I couldn’t help myself and glowed.
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