Secrets of Sargent's Watercolors
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - April, 1989 (Cover Story)
Discover the principles and techniques that make Sargent one of our greatest painters.
Few artists are respected by painters and the general public as much as John Singer Sargent. In the past decade, thousands have come to know Sargent through major exhibitions, coffee-table books, reproductions of his work and newspaper reviews. Most people are intrigued by this consummate portrait artist who painted dashing likenesses of celebrities, who was sometimes aloof, a bit of a dandy and the toast of two continents. Even for the non-painter, Sargent has become an institution.
The side of Sargent that intrigues most artists, however, is a little different. We see Sargent as a life-long student of light, tone and color. He was indifferent as to whether he painted a bush fire on a mountainside or a mud bank full of sleeping crocodiles, as long as the subject challenged his insatiable desire to record an artful effect. This Italian-born American drew like an old master and painted with an effortlessness seldom surpassed. And in what follows, we'll glean what we can from his watercolors, to find kernels of wisdom to apply to our own work.
But before we get to technique, it's important to understand how Sargent became the painter he was. To begin with, he was born in Florence, Italy in 1856. His earliest known works, dating from about 1870, are watercolors of Alpine mountain ranges and carefully drawn portraits of his childhood friends. Both groups of work show a precociousness quite unusual for a young teenager.
Soft-Spoken Strength Overcast days proved just as fruitful to Sargent as those filled with sparkling sunlight. Observe the close value changes in the figure, hammock and trees that perfectly capture the feeling of soft, diffused light. Compared to Sargent's usual explosive, bravura brushwork, Figure in Hammock, Florida (watercolor, 13 5/8 x 21) is relatively quiet. The solidly organized patterns take the eye to the focal point (the figure and hammock), which is cunningly framed by the palm trees. The two orange flowerpots give the painting an understated yet effective color accent.
By the age of 18, Sargent had been accepted to study under portrait painter Carolus-Duran at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Carolus-Duran's approach to painting was methodical and direct, stressing solid drawing, economy of means and cool emotional detachment. He encouraged his students to "find the middle tones, lay in the dark accents and then, finally, the highlights." Velasquez and Courbet were set up as examples to follow. Sargent's superior talent soon established him as Carolus-Duran's star pupil.
Two additional influences during Sargent's early years were Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler. Monet, in particular (with whom Sargent later became friendly), made a powerful impact on him by offering a more vibrant rendition of light and color than the more somber palette that was encouraged by CarolusDuran. This impressed Sargent enough to adapt many of Monet's principles into his own work. Whistler's influence, although less evident, led Sargent to explore various unconventional tonal arrangements and to become sensitive to the importance of value patterns in a painting.
By the early 1880s, Sargent had established himself firmly as a portrait painter, but he continued to follow his private pursuits of landscape and genre painting. His friend, poet Edmund Gosse, aptly describes Sargent's landscape method: "He was accustomed to emerge from the house carrying a large easel, 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. The process was like that in the game of musical chairs.... His objective was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision." What Gosse observed was Sargent's aversion to the academic concern for subject matter and composition, which, in the over-emphasis so prevalent among French and English academicians, robbed painting of its vitality.
By the 1890s, honors were pouring down on Sargent. In 1897, for example, he was elected to the National Academy in New York City, to the Royal Academy in London, and made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur of France. Between 1890 and 1902, Sargent spent a great deal of his time painting two sets of mural decorations for the Boston Public Library. Other mural and public commissions followed, including a large documentary painting entitled, Gassed, which depicted in stark reality the horror of World War I.
Surprisingly, it wasn't until after the turn of the century that Sargent made any concentrated effort in watercolor. From this time forward, his trips to Italy, Majorca, Spain and Corfu took place nearly every summer and extended into the early fall. The majority of the oils and watercolors he painted on holiday between 1900 and 1914 share a mood of abandonment and sensual relaxation and are some of his finest works.
Sargent's last years were mainly occupied with mural painting. Tiring of portrait work, he began to resent his popularity. Fashionable clients became "mugs," and after 1908 his record of commissioned portraits shows an abrupt decline. Although Sargent was, by the 1920s, a figure from another artistic age, even in terms of conventional representational art, he had become a popular institution.
During the period before his death he was widely recognized and respected, even by those who knew little or nothing about his art. He died on April 14, 1925.