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
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 (www.jssgallery.org and www.johnsingersargent.org); 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.