The first time realized I loved the work of John Singer Sargent was just one month ago, on a trip to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It was a gray-tinted day with leaking skies.  I took the red line with Uncle Jim and landed on the steps of the entrance with just a few wet droplets on my coat and braid.  We waited impatiently for a highly distracted ticket checker before rebelliously slipping past him unchecked, and Jim led me into the new wing.  It smelled like art and rain in the hallways.

Through Alex Katz we wandered and up multiple floors.  By the time we reached the final section, we were tired and on Art Overload, but Jim said we couldn’t leave yet.  “I want you to see the Sargents…if they’re still here.”

As is my custom to first choose a path through a gallery, I entered and looked to either side of the room.  Immediately, one painting in particular drew me toward it.  The third one in on the right, bordered with an ornately carved golden wood frame, and the foreground to a silver-blue damask wallpaper with velvety texture – A Capriote by John Singer Sargent.

The wall description read:

In 1878 Sargent traveled to the Italian island of Capri, in search of exotic scenery.  Many of the works he produced there featured local model Rosina Ferrara, who was admired for her blue-black hair and olive skin.  Here, Ferrara stands in an olive grove.  Her arms are twined around a tree, echoing its twisted shape.  By using this contrived pose and depicting his model’s striking features in profile, Sargent made her seem an integral and sensual part of the landscape.

Sargent was born to American parents in 1856 Florence, Italy, and lived most of his life and successful artistic career among European aristocracy.  He is said to be one of the greatest portrait artists in the world.

When he was still living in Paris, Sargent wanted to paint Madame Pierre Gautreau despite not having been commissioned.  He was able to convince her upon gaining an introduction and completed Madame X in 1884.  Apparently, a dress strap slipped over the shoulder was too erotic for the times and the painting succeeded in stirring up scandal among conservative critics.  Sargent moved to London shortly afterward and would live there for the rest of his life.  More than twenty years later the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Madame X.  Sargent wrote to Director Edward Robinson, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

I fell in love with the luminance of A Capriote, with the softness of its strokes, the twinkle in her eye.  If I could paint like John Singer Sargent…

His techniques as an artist allowed him to reach greatness.  He always sketched his subjects with pencil or watercolor first, over and over, learning the light, perfecting the composition, before beginning with oils.  He painted almost purely from life.  He would constantly step away from his easel to view subject and canvas simultaneously in the same light, the same line of sight, and the same distance.  He depicted the structure of an image first, acurately arranging “big masses, angles, and prominent planes” before focusing on small details.  He used plenty of paint and thick, confident strokes.  He painted middle-tones first and the highest lights and darkest darks last.  He was a tough self-critic and objective observer.  He learned from old Masters.


Connie Nelson

Art Renewal