Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sargent, John Singer

An Out-of-Doors Study
oil on canvas
65.9 x 80.7 cm
Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, USA

From the late 1880s, Sargent experimented with portrait compositions whose informality and naturalness stood in sharp contrast to his commissioned studio portraits of elegant and decorously posed society types. Inspired in part by the Impressionist works of his friend Claude Monet, this painting was the product of one of his extended visits to the Broadway artists' colony in the Cotswolds, England, where he experimented with plein-air (out-of-doors) work and a freer, Impressionist-inspired technique. Although he employed loose, lively brushwork throughout the image, Sargent carefully orchestrated the picture, employing a firm compositional structure of converging diagonal lines: the canoe, pole, canvas edge, and figural forms. Having begun the painting out-of-doors, he undoubtedly finished it in his studio, where he probably referred to a photograph of the couple similarly posed. Liberated from pictorial conventions, Sargent here featured the compositional asymmetry, natural light, and casual inattention of his “sitters” that would characterize his portraits in watercolor after 1900.

John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), the son of American expatriate parents, was the most successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape painter and watercolorist. He was considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury.

Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. His father was a doctor and his mother came from a very wealthy family in Philadelphia. He grew up in Europe, and studied painting in Italy and Germany, and then in Paris under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran (whose influence would be pivotal), then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Carolus-Duran's atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velazquez. It was an approach which relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. In 1884 at the Paris Salon, his painting of of a young socialite, exhibited as Madame X, the portrait of the 23-year-old, caused sensation and people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic. The scandal persuaded Sargent to move to England, and over the next few years established himself as the country's leading portrait painter.

During his career, Sargent created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air.

Sargent lived most of his life in Europe. He died in his sleep in 1925 at home in England having suffered a heart attack. He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.