A good friend, Ron Longstaffe, now passed away, was an off-and-on fishing companion. A significant collector of what we amusingly called low- and medium-skilled art, he and I frequently whiled away boat hours discussing the virtues of his multi-million dollar collection. As he didn’t care for my work and didn’t have any to speak of, we always felt we could be quite straightforward with each other. Finely art-literate for a capitalist, he surprised me one day when he told me he didn’t know John Singer Sargent painted landscapes. “I thought he was just a society portrait painter,” he said.
Needless to say, I tried to set him straight. I told him Sargent was an idealist whose heart was often in the mountains or out at sea. I mentioned that he quit portraiture — with dozens of commissions in his calendar — so he could paint commonplace motifs that simply appealed to him, often en plein air.
I’m laptopping you from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Right now there’s a terrific retrospective here called “Sargent and the Sea.” It’s loaded with fresh watercolours and oils, including beach scenes with children and nudes, derelict boats, and frightening storms from some of his ocean crossings. Sargent was an obsessive sketcher, and the show is enriched with 80 drawings and scrapbook sketches.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), while often batted about by current trends and the expectations of his fans, was also a self-motivated individualist of considerable character and lofty personal standards. As a young man freshly emerged from the school of Carolus-Duran in Paris, critics said he had nothing more to learn. Indeed, it seems he could plop himself down pretty well anywhere and turn out a creditable work. As all good retrospectives do, this one at the Corcoran gives us a few off-the-cuff losers as well as a feast of winners. Perhaps a private conceit, Sargent’s goal was always to make work look effortless, and in those odd times when he didn’t quite make it, there’s a little flash of hope for mortals like us.
My friend Ron was a lover of all cursory remarks. I’m wishing he were here with me now.
PS: “Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.” (John Singer Sargent)
Esoterica: There are three creative sources in this show. The first is the obviously contrived salon pieces that were carefully built up and monumentalized from previous sketches. Then there are other, also contrived, pieces where he attempts to make a casual effect, as in a snapshot. The third are cropped slices of what was presented before him — exercises in light, design, pattern, and line — in the service of understanding the nature of things. “Make the best of an emergency,” said Sargent. These small emergencies are a joy to behold.
Sargent and the Sea
by Dana Rungay
I hesitate to write and ask this, but in today’s clickback on Sargent you refer to one painting as “natural location sketch with haphazard elements” and I am wondering… gee it looks quite an abstract, attractive composition to me… what is haphazard?
(RG note) Thanks, Dana. So many asked me about this and the item below that I thought I’d better be clearer. If you half close your eyes you’ll see the overall pattern of this particular painting — especially the spotty darks — are all over the place and not positioned in accordance with standard compositional ideals. Jumpy and decentralized, the eye is confused by these factors, as well as the significant amount of clear space, and this, to me, makes it an interesting work. Haphazard is okay.
‘Contrived salon pieces’
by Janice Robinson-Delaney, Ellenwood, GA, USA
I don’t quite understand what you mean by “contrived salon pieces.” Could you please explain?
(RG note) Thanks, Janice. In my books “contrived” is not a bad word. It means elements are assembled into a composition that may or may not adhere to standard formulae. The Sargent painting, generally known as Oyster Gatherers of Cancale, was painted to enter into a specific show or “salon.” Elements — the attractive women, the older woman, the young boys, were derived from prior sketches and placed into a picturesque juxtaposition designed for maximum appeal. This was in contrast to other works where the composition was “contrived” to be more informal and casual.
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Composed or contrived?
by Laurel McBrine, Toronto, ON, Canada
I would use the word “composed” rather than “contrived” (which to me has somewhat negative connotations) to describe Sargent’s work. Sargent’s paintings were never slapdash. He could portray things with a single stroke, but those finishing brushstrokes were planned and placed carefully on top of layers of struggle in paint. He often scraped out and repainted the head many, many times. For instance, he repainted the head of Mrs. Hammersley no less than 16 times. I find it encouraging, that even the great John Singer Sargent had to work hard to achieve his vision.
Mary Newbold Patterson Hale, one of Sargent’s Boston cousins wrote, ‘On one occasion, when the subject set for a composition was a portrait, the criticism was: “not one of them seriously considered.” Many we had thought quite good, as an indication of what might be tried while a portrait was in progress. That would not do for Sargent. A sketch must be seriously planned, tried and tried again, turned about until it satisfies every requirement, and a perfect visualization is attained. A sketch must not be merely a pattern of pleasant shapes, just pleasing to the eyes, just merely a fancy. It must be a very possible thing, a definite arrangement — everything fitting in a plan and in true relationship frankly standing upon a horizontal plane coinciding in their place with a prearranged line. As a plan is to a building, so must the sketch be to the picture.”
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Sargent as guide
by Ed Pointer, Afghanistan
I guess we are all admirers of Sargent’s work and what better painter to use as a guide in our challenging profession! In any case I’ve studied his work but paint nothing like him and certainly not as well. I’ve always thought both his sketch and completed painting Oyster Gatherers of Cancale to be a masterful work. Early in my painting career I found myself staring for hours at various reproductions of that painting but I have never had the good fortune to look at the original; someday that will happen. Meantime thanks so much for your continued good info and thoughts. I am in wonder at how you manage to finish all the things you do and still have time to paint.
by Kate Lackman, Cincinnati, OH, USA
I, too, love the spontaneity of his brush strokes and the ability that he had to “make his work look effortless.” It is amazing to see his work and I wish I could go to Washington and view the show. I was in an antique mall once and found a Sargent print beautifully framed of the Oyster Gatherers of Cancale for $19.00. I thought that it would be great inspiration in my studio. I also thought that one of my daughters would like it for her apartment. They did not like the print at all. I was really surprised and realized that they did not appreciate the beauty that I saw in this work. After studying this print, I painted my interpretation of it from a day at the beach with my daughters. This was such a good exercise and I know lots of artist today and throughout history have copied the masters to learn from them.
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
Another favourite of mine is Joaquin Sorolla, the impressionist artist who lived from 1863 to 1923. He also painted boys and girls in the water, portraits and local scenes of all descriptions. He, too, was prolific and very versatile and skilled. I loved his work the first time I saw it in his house museum in Madrid. I was absolutely blown away by the passion in his paintings, the brilliant sunny colours and the brushstrokes, so confident and strong.
Eye doesn’t need exact details
by Gary Lanthrum, Manassas, VA, USA
There are a couple of other museums in DC that have paintings by Sargent. The Freer Gallery adjacent to the Smithsonian castle, and the National Gallery of Art. I frequently visit those museums just to see the Sargent paintings. He manages to slap paint on the canvas in what appears to be a haphazard way when viewed from up close. As you move away from the paintings those haphazard dashes of paint coalesce into powerful and coherent images. In one case the bold swipes of paint become a luminous satin gown with light and shade seemingly rendered with perfect fidelity. I tend to be obsessed with trying to recreate the details in my reference material when I paint. That obsession tends to produce some pretty nasty results. Sargent reminds me that the eye doesn’t need exact details to produce a very convincing image. In Sargent’s best paintings he separated what the mind knows from what the eye sees and that is a goal we could all aspire to.
Ups and downs of Sargent
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Sargent was an odd duck. There is no record of any romantic relationships he had or even much evidence of a strong personality. He was well traveled but lacked any national identity. He was more Brit than American. I remember one photo of him painting on a boat with a full suit, a rope securing his pant leg to the ship. Landscape doesn’t suit Sargent to me. His landscape paintings lack the emotion you feel with a painter like Millet, or Sisley or Pissarro. He’s like a tourist in the countryside but hasn’t ever ripped his clothing on a barbed wire fence or turned over a log or landed a fish in a trout stream. He’s a camera-like observer with a great eye but what he sees just doesn’t move me. The same feeling I get looking at his ‘beach’ pictures. They pale next to a Sorolla or a Potthast. The Sargent painting that dazzles me is his portrait of Lady Agnew. He’s captured that moment of supreme feminine beauty and luxury. Her look is vaguely seductive, but unattainable. His portrait of ‘Madam X” also gets the elusive beauty of another sort of femme fatale. Sargent’s talent responds to these gorgeous creatures. He uses his great skill to capture them, but he’s not willing to stick his neck out to court them. I’d still take Whistler’s ‘White Girl’ any day. You see his total love of his model tenderly expressed. Sargent is a wonderful painter, but he’s sort of a tin man. It makes me wonder what he would have done if he had unleashed his full passion.
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Look to the light tones
by Alfonso Tejada, Vancouver, BC, Canada
As many artists are interested in the watercolour media and working en plein air, the inspiration of J.S. Sargent’s work is a continuous challenge to measure and learn on the effortless simplicity of the forms and the use of colour in his works. It is in the outdoors where his approach to vistas and sketches have made an impact on every artist that I know. There is something unique in the use of light against shadows and the composition is always a spontaneous and casual recollection of time, people and places. Places in cities of the world are so inspiring that hardly can be said which one is the best of all.
But in my own bias, Italy, Spain and Florida hold his unique works .The winner for me is the series of works in Italy, his country of birth (Florence) and Venice is by far the most romantic series because the light captured as reflected from the canal in this labyrinth city were the sun shines on a mirror and breaks into an array of colours. His colours of an old city are transformed into white light and the shadows are rendered in gently blue-sienna light tones (Zattere, Rio Eremite, Venice 1904). Simplicity and awareness of the sense of place. Once the artist has absorbed the feeling of a place, the hand and the mind disconnect and it is the spirit of the location that leads the brush.
Sargent notes come to light
by David Sharpe, Stratford, ON, Canada
Seeing his sketches makes me realize what an amazing master of value he was. I’ve attached a file from another website of transcriptions of his notes on his painting technique and methods set down by two of his former students. He talks about how he worked hard at getting that painterly look of spontaneity.
When Mr. John Collier was writing his book The Art of Portrait Painting, he asked John Singer Sargent for an account of his methods. Sargent replied:
“As to describing my procedure, I find the greatest difficulty in making it clear to pupils, even with the palette and brushes in hand and with the model before me; to serve it up in the abstract seems to me hopeless.”
With the assistance, however, of two of his former pupils, Miss Heyneman and Mr. Henry Haley, it is possible to obtain some idea of his methods. When he first undertook to criticize Miss Heyneman’s work, he insisted that she should draw from models and not from friends.
“If you paint your friends, they and you are chiefly concerned about the likeness. You can’t discard a canvas when you please and begin anew — you can’t go on indefinitely until you have solved a problem.”
He disapproved (Miss Heyneman continues) of my palette and brushes. On the palette the paints had not been put out with any system.
“You do not want dabs of color, you want plenty of paint to paint with.”
Then the brushes came in for derision. “No wonder your painting is like feathers if you use these.”
Having scraped the palette clean he put out enough paint so it seemed for a dozen pictures.
“Painting is quite hard enough without adding to your difficulties by keeping your tools in bad condition. You want good thick brushes that will hold the paint and that will resist in a sense the stroke on the canvas.”
He then, with a bit of charcoal, placed the head with no more than a few careful lines over which he passed a rag, so that is was a perfectly clean grayish colored canvas (which he preferred), faintly showing where the lines had been. Then he began to paint. At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background), to indicate the mass of the hair and the tone of the dress. The features were not even suggested. This was a matter of a few moments. For the rest he used his color without a medium of any kind, neither oil, turpentine or any other mixture.
“The thicker you paint, the more color flows.”
He had put in this general outline very rapidly, hardly more than smudges, but from the moment that he began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak, holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall. To watch the head develop from the start was like the sudden lifting of a blind in a dark room. Every stage was a revelation. For one thing he often moved his easel next to the sitter so that when he walked back from it he saw the canvas and the original in the same light, at the same distance, at the same angle of vision. He aimed at once for the true general tone of the background, of the hair, and for the transition tone between the two. He showed me how the light flowed over the surface of the cheek into the background itself. At first he worked only for the middle tones, to model in large planes, as he would have done had the head been an apple. In short, he painted as a sculpture models, for the great masses first, but with this difference that the sculptor can roughly lump in his head and cut it down afterwards, while the painter, by the limitations of his material, is bound to work instantly for an absolute precision of mass, in the color and outline he intends to preserve. Economy of effort in every way, he preached, the sharpest self-control, the fewest strokes possible to express a fact, the least slapping about of purposeless paint. He believed, with Carolus Duran, that painting was a science which it was necessary to acquire in order to make of it an art.
“You must draw with your brush as readily, as unconsciously almost as you draw with your pencil.”
He advised doing a head for a portrait slightly under life-size, to counteract the tendency to paint larger than life. Even so he laid in a head slightly larger than he intended to leave it, so that he could model the edges with and into the background. The hills of paint vanished from the palette, yet there was no heaviness on the canvass: although the shadow was painted as heavily as the light, it retained its transparency.
“If you see a thing transparent, paint it transparent; don’t get the effect by a thin strain showing the canvas through. That’s a mere trick. The more delicate the transition, the more you must study it for the exact tone.”
The lightness and certainly of his touch was marvelous to behold. Never was there any painter who could indicate a mouth with more subtlety, with more mobility, or with keener differentiation. As he painted it, the mouth bloomed out of the face, an integral part of it, not, as in the great majority of portraits, painted on it, a separate thing. He showed how much could be expressed in painting the form of the brow, the cheekbones, and the moving muscles around the eyes and mouth, where the character betrayed itself most readily: and under his hands, a head would be an amazing likeness long before he had so much as indicated the features themselves. In fact, it seemed to me the mouth and nose just happened with the modeling of the cheeks, and one eye, living luminous, had been placed in the socket so carefully prepared for it (like a poached egg dropped on a plate, he described the process), when a clock in the neighborhood struck and Mr. Sargent was suddenly reminded that he had a late appointment with a sitter. In his absorption he had quite forgotten it. He hated to leave the canvas.
“If only one had oneself under perfect control, one could always paint a thing, finally in one sitting. Not that you are to attempt this. If you work on a head for a week without indicating the features you will have learnt something about the modeling of the head.”
Every brush stroke while he painted had modeled the head or further simplified it. He was careful to insist that there were many roads to Rome, that beautiful painting would be the result of any method or no method, but he was convinced that by the method he advocated, and followed all his life, a freedom could be acquired, a technical mastery that left the mind at liberty to concentrate on a deeper or more subtle expression. I had previously been taught to paint a head in three separate stages, each one repeating – in charcoal, in thin color-wash and in paint — the same things. By Sargent’s method the head developed by one process. Until almost at the end there were no features or accents, simply a solid shape growing out of and into a background with which it was one. When at last he did put them in, each accent was studied with an intensity that kept his brush poised in mid-air until eye and hand had steadied to one purpose, an then…bling! The stroke resounded almost like a note of music. It annoyed him very much if the accents were carelessly indicated, without accurate consideration of their comparative importance. They were, in a way, the nails upon which the whole structure depended for solidity. Miss Heyneman subsequently left a study she had made, at Sargent’s studio with a note begging him to write, “yes” or “no,” according to whether he approved or not. He wrote the next day:
“I think your study shows great progress — much better values and consequently greater breathe of effect with less monotony in the detail. I still think you ought to paint thicker — paint all the half tones and general passages quite thick — and always paint one thing into another and not side by side until they touch. There are a few hard and small places where you have not followed this rule sternly enough.”
A few days later he called. Miss Heyneman’s usual model had failed, and she persuaded her charwoman to sit in instead; Sargent offered to paint the head of the model. This old head was perhaps easier to indicate with its prominent forms, but the painting was more subtle. I recall my astonishment when he went into the background with a most brilliant pure blue where I had seen only unrevealed darkness.
“Don’t you see it? The way the light quivers across it?”
I had not perceived it: just as, until each stroke emphasized his intention. I did not see how he managed to convey the thin hair stretched tightly back over the skull without actually painting it. He painted light or shadow, a four-cornered object with the corners worn smooth, as definite in form as it was indefinite in color, and inexpressibly delicate in its transitions. He concentrated his whole attention upon the middle tone that carried the light into the shadow. He kept up a running commentary of explanation as he went, appraising each stroke, often condemning it and saying:
“That is how not to do it! Keep the planes free and simple.”
He drew a full, large brush down the whole contour of a cheek, obliterating apparently all the modeling underneath, but it was always further to simplify that he took these really dreadful risks, smiling at my ill concealed perturbation and quite sympathizing with it. The second painting taught me that the whole values of a portrait depends upon its first painting, and that no tinkering can ever rectify an initial failure. Provided every stage is correct, a painter of Mr. Sargent’s caliber could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps — but he never attempted to correct one. He held that it was as impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong, as for a sculptor to remodel the features of a head that has not been understood in the mass. That is why Mr. Sargent often repainted the head a dozen times, he told me that he had done no less than sixteen of Mrs. Hammersley. When he was dissatisfied he never hesitated to destroy what he had done. He spent three weeks, for instance, painting Lady D’ Abernon in a white dress. One morning, after a few minutes of what was to be the final setting, he suddenly set to work to scraped out what he had painted. The present portrait in a black dress, was done in three sittings. He did the same with the portrait of Mrs. Wedgwood, and many others. Miss Eliza Wedgewood relates that in 1896 he consented, at the insistence of Alfred Parsons, to paint her mother. She sat for him twelve times, but after the twelfth sitting he said they would both be the better for a rest. He then wrote to Miss Wedgwood that he was humiliated by his failure to catch the variable and fleeting charm of her mother’s personality — that looked like the end of the portrait. Some weeks later he saw Mrs. Wedgwood at Broadway, and struck with a new aspect he said:
“If you will come up next week we will finish that portrait.”
She came to Tite Street, a new canvas was produced, and in six sittings he completed the picture which was shown at the Memorial Exhibition.
“Paint a hundred studies: keep any number of clean canvases ready, of all shapes and sizes so that you are never held back by the sudden need of one. You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.”
He thought it was excellent practice to paint flowers, for the precision necessary in the study of their forms and the pure brilliancy of their color. It refreshed the tone of one’s indoor portraits, he insisted, to paint landscapes or figures out of doors, as well as to change one’s medium now and then. He disliked pastel, it seemed to him too artificial, or else it was made to look like oil or watercolor, and in that case why not use oil or water color? Upon one occasion, after painting for me, he saw one hard edge, and drew a brush across it, very lightly, saying at the same time:
“This is a disgraceful thing to do, and means slovenly painting. Don’t ever let me see you do it….”
I have also seen the assertion that he painted a head always in one sitting. He painted a head always in one process, but that could be carried over several sittings. He never attempted to repaint one eye or to raise or lower it, for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for the eye, and if it was wrongly placed, the understructure was wrong, and he ruthlessly scraped and repainted the head from the beginning. That is one reason why his brushwork looks so fluent and easy; he took more trouble to keep the unworried look of a fresh sketch than many a painter puts upon his whole canvas.
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Dance of blues
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Brett Busang of Washington, DC, USA, who wrote, “We were very possibly at the museum together. I was there today to finish up a review I’d started. It’ll be posted on Examiner.com in a day or two.”
And also Donna Howell of Arlington, VA, USA, who wrote, “My second visit to the Sargent show at the Corcoran was with a docent led tour which I highly recommend to anyone. The woman who led our tour was highly knowledgeable and told us information that we would never have known unless we had read and studied intensely about Sargent. It is a wonderful exhibit and even has a place set up where museum goers may sit and sketch in sketchbooks that are provided for that purpose. I hope to see the exhibit again and again before it leaves the area.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Sargent and the sea…