Archive for April, 2013

sargent in PradoAlmost everyone knows the painting on the right by John Singer Sargent, painted in Paris 1883.  It usually resides in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts but is often on loan as it is in this case.  It is/was being shown in the same room in the Prado with Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”.  I can’t think of a greater honor for a painter or a better retort to someone who disparages John Singer Sargent as an artist.  The point of my showing it is to introduce the father of the four girls depicted in the painting, Edward (Ned) Darley Boit who was himself a pretty good watercolorist and a friend of Sargent for 30 years.  (The little girl sitting on the rug  grew up a good watercolorist also.  I don’t know why the only thing you hear about these young girls is that the back two had some sort of psychiatric history.)


By Edward Boit (From the exhibition catalog.) He is obscure enough today that I couldn’t find anything on the internet he did.  His name just brings up the painting by Sargent.

Because Boit was,in my opinion,  a good  artist (see above) he allowed Sargent to be one too when he did the painting of his daughters. You have to see it “in person” to appreciate the brushwork.

It was Boit who convinced, Sargent to show a group of watercolors in New York City in 1909 in a joint show which included Boit’s own watercolors as well (which sold pretty well, I should add.)   He also convinced the Brooklyn Museum to buy all of Sargent’s watercolors as a group (which seems to be an idea of Sargent’s who realized that it wouldn’t be worth his while to sell one at a time).   Three years later there was another show and, this time,  the Boston museum bought all of them in 1912 also brokered by Boit.  Now, for some reason, at last the two museums have decided to pool their holdings and show all of them together.   There are a total of 93 of them in the show, 38 are from the Brooklyn collection.  There are also 9 oils by Sargent for comparison.  All 93 are now in Brooklyn  (until July 28th) and will be in Boston thereafter.   It is a superb exhibit with a superb catalog.  If you can’t get to the show, I recommend getting the catalog.  The reproductions are excellent (the only way they could be better is if they were on watercolor paper)  and the essays very informative.  There are many details enlarged.

The difference between the Brooklyn and the Boston watercolors is that the Brooklyn group were a selection of work done over a 10 year period and were done without any thought of selling them.   Sargent knew they were good, but he said he like to paint them and he liked to keep them.   As one person said, you only got one of these if you got married and Sargent needed to give you a present or you fell out of his gondola in Venice and needed to be cheered up.  The Boston group , on the other hand, Sargent did specifically for sale over the course of about three years.  This leads to technical differences.  Both were done on watercolor blocks, but the Brooklyn group are generally smaller.  The Boston group uses more wax resist and gouache.

The most interesting and valuable aspect of this show is that the emphasis is on watercolor technique.  The signage often discusses exactly what was used, and there are videos scattered around describing basic technique which might be too basic for you, but one of the enduring aspects of watercolor art is that you feel “I could do that if only….  ” and seeing a video of someone doing just that is fun.    There is also in the exhibit a little theatre in which a video is playing of someone copying a painting and explaining how she did it.    There are displays around explaining technical analysis, what paints were used, and so forth. What is strangely missing is Sargent’s palette.  (see my post here.)  But there may have been a permission’s problem.  Here are some tubes, not all of the variety he used apparently.  Double click on the image a few times to enlarge.  You will notice a pigment labelled “brown pink” which, when I was at the show, several people were curious about.  This used to be a very fugitive pigment made from the bark of an oak tree growing in the US.  It is now a convenience mixture and unlike genuine rose madder I don’t believe is for sale.  His gouache paints, which he used a lot, are not displayed.

Sargent's tubes

Sargent’s tube watercolor paints

Sargent's brushes

Sargent’s brushes. Notice the squirrel hair mop brush below which appears to be a badger hair brush of a type I’ve never seen before. The top small brushes are the color of Kolinksy hair but I can’t tell if they are such.

There is a final technical chapter as well in the catalog that discusses the paper, paint, etc. in a more comprehensive way than the exhibit.

paints in painting

annotated watercolor with paint labeled. Double click a few time to get maximum enlargement.

After reading the very good exhibition catalog and looking at the exhibit, I have become more aware of Sargent’s use of gouache and wax resist.

I understand Sargent in terms of his training with Carolus Duran.  The French system of artistic training ended with the student studying with a master independent of the school itself.  (In fact, the schools did not teach painting.)   What usually happened is a group of students would rent a loft and paint together.   The master would come by once a week for a “crit”.  Duran had a very interesting exercise that he set his students.  He would have them parade around the studio; and, somewhat like the game of musical chairs, have them stop on his call and paint what was in front of them.  They had to, not just copy what they saw, they had to make something of it.

As  has been pointed out by everyone who knew of Sargent’s artistic practice when not doing portraits, he continued to do what turns out to be what Duran suggested (including in these watercolors.)  As Janet Chen, Curatorial Research Associate, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston seems to have picked up when she quotes in the catalog from  Evan Charteris’s classic biography of  Sargent one of the better descriptions of Sargent at work by Edmund Gosse :  “[Sargent was] … accustomed …to advance a little way into the open, and then suddenly plant himself down nowhere in particular, behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field …His object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely what ever met his vision … the painter’s business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever that may be.”  (italics my emphasis.)

Sargent , as can be seen from Gosse’s remark, is concerned with what he called “the effect” that makes a trivial view of something a work of art.  (I’m not sure Gosse really understood this.)  This I think he learned playing Duran’s musical chairs.  You could turn “nothing into something” as Edward Wesson used to say, so understanding this term is critical to any discussion of Sargent.

What Sargent meant by “the effect:  is a side-by side strong contrast of value, hue, intensity, or warmth, etc.  In portraits this was usually, according to him, to be found somewhere around where the orbit meets the nasal bone.   In watercolor his use of gouache allowed him to extend this effect to a contrast of transparent and opaque pigment.  It works exceeding well to showcase the transparent but necessarily weak watercolor versus the more intense but flat and opaque gouache.  ( It was not just that he  only “recovered the whites” by using white gouache.)  He used, for example large washes of intense gouache ultramarine blue against transparent watercolor.    He also added medium, probably gum tragacanth which is probably that mysterious  watercolor “meglypth” to make the watercolor paint “thicker” and less runny.  However, his use of opaque paint, either gouache or many layers of thick watercolor paint (sometimes just dabbing watercolor paint directly from the tube to the paper in little round spots), was often over a layer of wax resist (clear waxy crayon) which was put over an earlier wash not just  over the white paper.  Since he seemed to favor rough paper, the wax protected little bits of the paper that were higher than the rest and allowed sparkling bits of the under layer to show through a strong wash that was put over it.  The combination of wax resist and gouache changes the effect of using gouache, which can be deadening, into something that captured light in trees, for example, like the painting below.

all that sparkle across the back depends on wax resist

all that sparkle across the back depends on wax resist. detail Boboli, Gardens 1910

In addition to not favoring classic watercolor subjects (Sargent himself noted that his watercolors were not big skies and long vistas), they are up close and tight to the subject, often cropped severely,  spreading across the page from edge to edge  sometimes without a hint of the usual anchors like land and sky.  All you can make out in certain passages is the abstract colors although you know there was something there he was painting.  In some cases they are illegible unless you are told something.  In one painting of a stream there is another artist painting whom you probably wouldn’t see among the rocks if you weren’t told he was there.  In another painting there are ducks down at the bottom which are white blobs with yellow smudges for beaks.

Here is a postcard from the Boboli Gardens  (the same place as the above painting by Sargent) where one goes to get a panoramic view of Florence.  If Sargent were painting a postcard or taking a tourist’s snapshot, this is the scene or something like it he would have painted (see below)

postcard boboli gardens

This is what the “upper class tourist sees”

There is no clearly defined center of interest in Sargent’s work.  This was a compositional idea of Bonnard (11 years his junior), incidentally .

Criticism of his work were contradictory:  some pointed out that there was no “hierarchy”, that is center of interest ( think Bonnard) and others said like Roger Fry, considered a “modern” critic although a contemporary of Sargent, that “what he sees is exactly what the average upper-class tourist sees.  Everything is as striking as it is obvious”.  Ken Johnson in the New York Times review of the show (4/12/13) seems to like this remark and thinks Fry’s remarks “ring true” and that “there is no psychological depth or philosophical inquiry that would disturb a genteel Victorian.”     I’m not impressed with either Johnson or Fry’s eye.  Look at the background of the above painting by Sargent.  That’s a postcard?  That’s what an upper-class tourist sees?  Then look at the statue.  The upperclass tourist wants a faceless, vague statue? How about the vermillion smudge?  What the upper-class tourist wants is a view of Florence from the Boboli Gardens like the picture above.

More importantly, it’s unfortunate that Johnson choose to quote Fry, because there was bad blood between Sargent and Fry that went a long way back.  Fry set himself up as Sargent’s “chief critical antagonist” (in Erica Hirshler’s words from the catalog).  In 1903 Fry had an exhibit of his watercolors done in the traditional British way (There’s a pretty bland one reproduced in the exhibition catalog) in a gallery in which Sargent’s watercolors were shown next.  Virginia Woolf, who wrote a biography of Fry, said the critics were tepid and he had no commercial success.  She went on to say that he painted watercolors out of touch with his generation with a “queer mixture of obstinate belief in his own gift and extreme diffidence.”

Fry was one of the people responsible for bringing a sensational “post-impressionist” show to London (He coined the term).   He wrote in The Nation an article in which he said that Sargent supported them.  (I think Fry did see real similarities between Sargent and post-impressionists like Bonnard as I mention above.)  Unfortunately Sargent didn’t make the connection,  Sargent responded that he did not support Fry, and what’s more said that he didn’t consider what he had seen as art in two letters to the magazine.  Here’s the text of the letter The Nation 1/7/11

To the Editor of the “Nation”Sir,

My attention has been called to an article by Mr. Roger Fry, called “A Postscript on Post-Impressionism” in your issue of December 24th in which he mentions me as being among the champions of the group of painters now being shown at the Grafton Gallery, I should be obliged if you would allow me space in your columns for these few words of rectification.

Mr. Fry has been entirely misinformed, and if I had been inclined to join in the controversy, he would have known my sympathies were in the exactly opposite direction as far as the novelties are concerned, that have been most dicussed and that this show has been my first opportunity of seeing. I have declined Mr. Fry’s request to place my name on the initial list of promoters of the Exhibition on the ground of not knowing the work of the painters to whom the name of Post-Impressionists can be applied; it certainly does not apply to Manet or Cézanne. Mr. Fry may have been told — and I believed — that the sight of these paintings had made me a convert to his faith in them.

The fact is that I am absolutely sceptical as to their having any claim whatever to being works of art, with the exception of some pictures by Gauguin that strike me as admirable in color, and color only.

But one wonders what will Mr. Fry not believe, and one is tempted to say what will he not print?

Yours, etc.,

John S. Sargent

(Letter quoated in Charteris, P.192)

  I personally think that Sargent is in a lot of ways post-impressionist, in other words “post” his friend Monet (who’s name for one of his paintings led to the coining of the term “impressionist”), and he spoke too soon given the extreme importance that would be attached to his judgement about a show in London that was scandalous to the older generation, but then that doesn’t excuse Fry’s redefinition of what Sargent was doing to postcard painting for the genteel rich Victorians.  Fry’s remarks are basically cheap shots.  You read them a lot because most critics liked Sargent.  I think it  stuck to Sargent and might be responsible for years of neglect that is just beginning to change.   It functioned like a curse in primitive society making everyone believe that Sargent was a light weight.

Then there are remarks about the women’s clothes.  It’s strange given that the Metropolitan Museum in New York has a show of the period in impressionist art where they did paintings of women’s clothing because they were recording “the modern”.  For better or worse, women had these elaborate clothes and often had to change them several times a day.  Anyway, Sargent was painting the subtle reflections on the white cloth not the clothes.

Finally there’s the remark that that Sargent’s paintings lack psychological depth or philosophical inquiry.  This requires a complex response.

When we look at one work of art, we carry over our experience from looking at other works of art that are not necessary the same genre.  Consider the problem of looking at Greek sculpture and then looking at Egyptian sculpture.

Each of these very different examples of art (Greek versus Egyptian) have different aspects in terms of the circumstances surrounding their making who made them, who the art depicts, where was it shown, how it was done, the style, patronage questions, and so forth.  These questions are basically historical in nature not esthetic   Thus in a museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a bewildering variety of objects that prompt us to ask historical question.  Where did this come from, why was it made, who collected it, etc.?  This also includes questions of technique (how was it made and from what), and what were the contemporary responses to the art.  Sometimes this aspect of inquiry is called archaeology.

However, there is something irreducible, something constant about each of these objects that makes it Art no matter how different one object is from the other, and that’s why it is in an arm Museum and not an archeological collection.  That is, it takes on an interest beyond the original personal or historical context.  There is something about art that is irreducible to the historical or archaeological, but what is so puzzling about this “something” is that it cannot be extracted from the works of art and put on display by itself.  The two aspects are inseparable.

So from an archeological or historical point of view we can say that Sargent was who he was and painted for whom he painted and painting in the way he wanted to paint, etc.  However, in my opinion there is clearly something about Sargent’s art that shines through the merely historical or archeological that most people get.

To say that Sargent’s work does not explore the psychological or the philosophical is like saying that the Egyptian sculpture does not exalt the human body  like the Greek sculpture and therefore is not as good and not really art.   Psychology and philosophy were development in art that came later with psychoanalysis and DuChamp (who was 30 years younger than Sargent).   That Sargent does not disturb the “genteel” Victorian  (which, incidentally ,is a myth) employs a concept of the “avant guard” that also came later, that art, in Banksy’s words, “should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

The New York Times often reviews art from the “art world” perspective, and, from that perspective,  Sargent’s works will never be appreciated.I think the final retort to these sorts of criticism of Sargent is the photograph that begins this blog post.

The show is terrific.  I think there is a good possibility that this exhibit will change the practice of watercolor painting to not require it to avoid gouache.  Originally Winslow Homer used gouache but stopped because there was the belief that one must only use transparent watercolor and reserve the white paper for the white.  I think we have always known that there are some effects that we cannot accomplish that way.  For example, there are certain colors that have to have white in them particularly I find on the surface of buildings.  I think Sargent shows us that a mixture of transparent and opaque watercolors produces “an effect” that is right at the heart of what art is.

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