Saturday, August 15, 2015

Stalking My Art Heroes



"I do not judge, I only chronicle. Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend." J.S.S 

I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum to view the exhibit Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. The exhibition brings together paintings that have seldom been shown together. This collection of diverse and often unfinished portraits allows for an in-depth exploration of Sargent’s extraordinary talent. Every painting was a revelation, each displaying the effortless, virtuosity for which Sargent is most notably recognized.

“La Duse" While in London in 1893 Sargent managed to persuade Eleonora Duse to pose for him, but for barely an hour. In that brief sitting he was able to capture the essence of her enigmatic personality.

“In art, all that is not indispensable is unnecessary” 

From Velasquez he had learnt to simplify. Sargent worked with an economy of effort in every way, the sharpest self-control, the fewest strokes possible to express the truth. 

“George Henschel" This portrait was painted in approximately five sittings during which Henschel was required to stand on a platform and sing for Sargent. When Henschel’s wife saw the portrait for the first time, she remarked, "How beautiful! It’s George having arrived in heaven."


I suspect from reading notes on Sargent’s technique that he began by laying in a middle flesh tone, light on one side and dark on the shadow side, carefully sweeping the flesh into the background while maintaining the accuracy of the drawing. Every head is painted as a sculptor models, alway with an eye for the great masses.

“Painting is an interpretation of tone through the medium of color drawn with the brush."

Sargent strove to achieve a balance of shape and color as he developed the image, ever mindful of the relationship of figure to background. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the way in which he painted a forehead, expertly expressing the receding planes of the head. I was in awe of the subtle drawing of the mouth and eyes, fusing tone into tone, until carefully applying highlights and accents. Above all maintaining the principle of oneness.

“The thicker you paint, the more color flows.”


Sargent’s interior scenes were rich with ambient light, beautiful form and incredibly well designed. From Duran he learned that “objects in nature relieve one against each other by the relative values of light and shade which accompany and are a part of each local color, an outline or contour is a pure convention.”

Sargent believed that a sketch must not be merely a pattern of pleasant shapes, pleasing to the eyes, or a mere fancy but that It must be a very possible thing, a definite arrangement. He drew with his brush as readily and as unconsciously as with a pencil. Carolus Duran (Sargent’s mentor) stressed how important it was “to capture the envelope of the figure” and the dynamic relationships between the model’s contours and it’s surroundings.