Is Sargent the Greatest Art Teacher?

I recently traveled to Boston to see the blockbuster exhibition of paintings by the great 16th-century Venetian painters Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese that I wrote about several months ago in this blog post. While I was in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston I paid homage to the American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). The museum owns some of the best examples of Sargent’s work, including key portraits and landscapes as well as the murals he created for the rotunda and colonnade.

Although Sargent’s name is included in lists of the most popular and influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his popularity has waxed and waned since his death. Even today, while some contemporary artists extol the virtues of his gestured charcoal drawings, rapidly executed watercolors, and boldly stroked oils there are others who are more interested in artists such as Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988), William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941), or Edgar Payne (1882-1947).

What I find most interesting about Sargent is that one can learn volumes about drawing and painting by standing right up next to the works that are widely distributed throughout American museums and art centers. Whether in Birmingham, Los Angeles, New Orleans, or Colorado Springs I can find a major Sargent picture that allows me to study how he synthesized a few strokes of charcoal or oil color into a complete statement; how he manipulated different light sources to add drama and intrigue to portraits; and how he quickly captured the complete form of a figure, tent, waterfall, or building in watercolor.

Sargent’s method of painting is especially informative to portrait painters who want to strike that illusive balance between abstract paint quality and accurate detail. He was a master at laying down bold brush strokes of oil color that had exactly the right color, value, and edge quality to define a subject’s likeness when viewed from a distance. That certainly is in evidence in one of his most famous portraits, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. What appears to be an abstract composition of black, white, and blue shapes when viewed close up becomes a sensitive portrait of a friend’s four daughters when one steps back from the 87 1/2”-x-87 1/2” canvas.


A photo of Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
A close-up photo of
the painting.


I frequently visit websites devoted to Sargent that make it easy to find particular drawings or paintings, or to determine which institutions own major works. There are at least two sites dedicated to Sargent’s work ( and; and the websites for museums with large holdings of his drawings, watercolors, and oils are also useful sources of information. Sargent’s nieces left large collections of his works to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington DC, and the Brooklyn Museum purchased one of the largest collections of his watercolors.

I know many of you are better informed about resources that might be helpful in gaining information about Sargent and his work, and I welcome comments and suggestions that will allow all of us learn from the master.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

10 thoughts on “Is Sargent the Greatest Art Teacher?

  1. I was recently at the National Gallery in DC and, as happens, my day settled into focusing on the artists I was meant to focus on that day. In this instance, one of them was Sargent. I wrote down at the time a few things I thought about while studying him, and they overlap with your thoughts, but come at them from a different angle.

    I have a painter friend who considers Sargent, dismissively, to be the first painter who got famous for having really good technique. But it goes beyond that, I think. His technique is very striking. All colors, all lights and darks, are exactly where they ought to be to convince the eye – when seeing the painting from a distance – of the reality of the image they are constructing. That is, Sargent is a perfect master not only of the geometry and form of objects, but also of the cognitive apparatus of sight. He knows how to isolate and emphasize dark points, and bright points, to mimic the way an eye, glancing over a visual field, simplifies the field. His paintings, from a distance, look utterly natural and true.

    But there is a reverse side to this. His brushwork is ugly. Not just plain, or raw, or visible – ugly, obstinately ugly. If you go closer to his paintings, you see that he makes a highlight on an edge by dragging a brush loaded with Naples Yellow across a canvas. He drags it like he’s some kind of a thug, just leaving behind this ghastly track of yellow. To make the folds in a dress, he smashes in a whole gaggle of choatic brushstrokes, each one violent and rude and hostile to its fellows. And he really comes to life in painting pavement – just wretchedly miserable grey tones, thin, nasty, with dots and dashes of black and white over them to define these fields of grotesque paint.

    There’s nothing for it. Sargent’s actual mechanical application of paint is painfully ugly.

    But if you step back beyond the critical distance, it suddenly resolves into perfect, perfect placement of all things. Nothing could be more convincing than the image in a Sargent painting.

    What does this mean? What is he getting at, with his ostentatiously ugly paint?

    Looking at his frenzy of hellacious brushstrokes, alternately interpretable as the most beautiful of depictions, I cast my eye over the problem in the context of art history. Here’s what I thought of:

    Generally, there are two dominant modes of representation in painting. One mode seeks to model a medium (paint) that is unlike the thing depicted (flesh, say) until the qualities of the medium recede to invisibility, and the medium becomes a simulacrum of the thing depicted. David and Ingres are in this mode.

    The other model seeks to use the qualities of the medium, in and of itself, not to make a simulcrum, but to make a thing parallel to, and resembling, the thing depicted. The qualities of the medium are foregrounded. The flesh depicted in the painting isn’t depicted in the sense of replication of tone and color; the paint itself is sculpted to be more or less like flesh. Rembrandt invents this idea, and Van Gogh takes him up on it.

    So what on Earth is Sargent? There are two contradictory themes running through the history of oil painting. Most everyone subscribes to one theme or the other. Almost all painters on the Ingres end partake of some Rembrandt-ish trick, sooner or later, that saves labor at creating an illusion. Almost all Rembrandt-ish painters use some degree of Ingres-like simulacrum-ism to clearly define what they are getting at. But I can’t think of any accomplished oil painter who stands above the fray and says, “I choose both,” until Sargent.

    (No doubt I am leaving somebody out.)

    But Sargent uses the most radical of impressionist techniques as regards his actual brushstrokes – he is firmly in the camp of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, with his heavy, crude application of paint.

    On the other hand, he partakes of an immaculate draughtsmanship that is invisible at the distance you have to stand to see his brushstrokes, even though this draughtsmanship defines the location and value and color of every brushstroke. So that when you stand back, you don’t have the sense of physical mass and presence that you have with Rembrandt and Van Gogh; instead, you have the sensation of light and color that you have with an Ingres or David.

    This is what makes Sargent mysterious to me, even haunting. I don’t know what he’s getting at. Why was he attracted so powerfully and so nearly perfectly evenly to beauty and to ugliness? What does it mean?

    I don’t know.

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  3. To dmaidman, I liked reading your comment, it was very informative on the aspects of styles of art in relation to the application of the stroke and conveying the subject. You are quite inquisitive. I think the biggest difference about Sargent is his edge of the stroke. It is abstract, diffused, irregular and on purpose. Call it ugly, although he wanted to smear it purposely to allow the eye to blend the whole picture or make up it’s own edges. Little trails of color intersecting into the next form. Monet did that, Renoir did it too. Except Renoir was very neat in his diffused edges. Monet dragged color over color in the impressionist style. The effect is a dream like, soft quality when we view it from a distance. Van Gogh just placed a black line to divide the larger shapes. Picasso did also. Their works are much more distinct in form albeit beautiful. Just a different style than Sargent’s.
    I paint en plein air and in the studio in the impressionist style or semi -realistic sometimes. If I paint outside, I am rushed and I can see the ugly edges, but when viewed from a distance, what magic occurs. My paintings in the studio can be over labored, I have to loosen up many times and purposely get a little messy to give that emotion to the painting’s subjects. I know a modern plein air artist like Sargent, I look at his brush strokes and I swear they are so messy and discomboobled looking up close. There’s a wiggle he makes with his flat brush that throws those threads of color into the next shape. But then he is very neat on other edges, it’s balanced. It’s when I step back or view his work in a large gallery that the dreamy effect glows from it. You feel like the painting comes to life and it’s like seeing it on a movie screen. Needless to say this guy is winning the awards and selling larger and larger pieces. I now strive to make my edges wiggle here and there. There is an ART to that all unto itself that take years of practice or you just know how to do it from the beginning.
    Steve you sure know how to pick a great topic! I think reading this helped me to realize where my own work will head because I have been feeling a need for change or a new ‘edge’. The tightness has to lend towards more looseness in a balanced way. Sargent taught me something now. But I appreciate many of the forefathers of art each in a different way. I have visited museums all my life and remember the effect of seeing a huge Van Gogh in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC had on me when I was 17 years old. I will be going to the Getty in LA soon, I will look at a Sargent up close and personal. Thanks once again, Esther

  4. This is stupid!!

    There is no such thing as “The Greatest” anything. You will always find someone else who is better.

    Sergent is a good painter, but to say he is the “best” teacher is far from logical. To you he may be the greatest teacher, but not to me, or anyone else whose artistic abilities have been drastically improved due to the knowledge and or help of another.

  5. Steve your topic is wonderful and the responses are wonderful. I am a great fan of Sargent. He was amazing. I agree some of his brushwork is ugly but on the other hand it is extremely fresh and exciting. His work sparkles with life and vitality. He was one of the most prolific artists that has ever lived so yes, he did “practice” a lot. He was indeed an extremely knowledgeable and innovative artist and he was and still is a great leader of artists.

  6. I saw a fabulous exhibit of Sargent’s children and adolescent portraits at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA. What amazed me about his brushstrokes was that you could even tell what kind of fabric was on the chair, ottoman, children’s clothing…You could tell the difference between a silk or velvet…It was that descriptive! His brushstrokes looked totally amazing and beautiful to me in the pursuit of describing form.

  7. Is he the greatest? THe answer to that is not available now–it is ongoing–maybe we’ll find out in infinity, but——–just like the recent article on the influence of Richard Schmid–Sargent has and continues to have a major role in the influence of the artists of and since his time. I refer to the books I own on his works often whether for the techniques in oil or watercolor that translate to composition, light and shadow, brush strokes, etc. I also pay attention to others who were undoubtedly influenced by Sargent like Fechin,
    Bongart, Schmid, Mundy, McCaw, …………………etc.

  8. There is always someone better.

    Sargent was fantastic at many things…not the best at everything. This means Sargent himself could have learned a thing or two from someone…I assure you if he were alive today, he would tell you the same.

    There are teachers that have things to offer…but no one has EVERYTHING to offer. I think the important thing is to look for the teacher that has what you need. That teacher then becomes the greatest teacher FOR you…until you need something else.

  9. Great topic–I think Sargent’s work can be incredibly informative. I often think he had the equivalent in vision to what musicians would call absolute pitch. His value, color, structure, brushwork, are often nearly perfect, as if his eye were a human camera. I think that’s where his greatest lesson lies–and it’s similar to what we see in Velazquez: drawing and painting, and all of the aspects of 3D representation on a 2D surface, CAN be reduced to a single process that mimics vision.
    Superficially, it’s incredibly simple: right value, right color, right shape, right place. Almost stupid. But what really gets us is the deeper meaning of this. Why does it work? How? And what does it say about vision as related to the human experience?
    In this light, I find the comment on Sargent’s “ugliness” to be quite biased. Sargent’s paint reflects its process, pure and simple. It’s been reduced to only those optical effects necessary to reproducing the fleeting and illusory nature of vision itself. It’s like quantum mechanics for painters: you’re sure that’s it’s there, but when you stop to look, it’s gone. How can something so sincere be ugly? Because up close it’s not “smooth,” “unified,” “delicate” or any other deceptive textural qualities we might traditionally associate with “beauty?” I must have a different definition of beauty because the truth in Sargent’s paint definitely qualifies it in mine.