Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend."

Before this term, I had never taken an American art class. I didn't really know much about American art, period. And in my mind, I wasn't really that interested. Can't explain it, but that's how it was.

But then came this term. And this class (American Art of the Gilded Age, 1860-1900). And I have probably the most incredibly cool, most rockin' American art professor of all time. And slowly but surely, through Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler...I started to become a fan. And then I fell in love.

John Singer Sargent- 1856-1925

Though of American lineage, Sargent was born in Italy, trained in France, and lived most of his life in England. He's most typically known for his luxurious portrait Madame X, and while she is quite sumptuous, she's not my favorite work of his. But she does typify my favorite aspect of his work, which is the elegant female portraits. You gotta admit, there's just something about a well dressed, good lookin' lady.
Lady with a Rose (1882) of Charlotte Louise Burckhardt was the first portrait to really strike me. Here Charlotte is pictured in all black on a neutral, unremarkable background which emphasizes her as the focus of the piece. In her extended left hand, she gingerly holds a wide rose between her thumb and forefinger. The innocent white of the rose plays off the blackness of her dress and the dirty-drab background so nicely. My favorite part of the whole thing though is her facial expression. Her lips are quirked in the sassiest of smirks and the look in her eye suggests she's merely humoring Sargent rather than willingly playing a part of this whole scenario. She has personality, she has spark, and you want to ask her story! And you didn't need a fancy background or a colorful dress. You just needed her, being her, and holding a flower.

That's, in my opinion, the magic of Sargent. He captures the lively reality of his sitters. We could get into the debate of whether the works depict who these women really are or if the image is manufactured from Sargent's perspective of them, but I'll forego any debates for now. :)

Sargent studied under the French painter Carolus-Duran, who emphasized the works and style of Diego Velázquez (also a total fave)...this meant going at the canvas with a loaded brush to place very particular strokes of the paint from the get-go, instead of the very academic style of drawing and underpainting to start. Sargent's initial interest lay in landscapes, but Duran was a portrait artist and benefitted Sargent most as a tutor in that arena.

Sargent studied in Spain for a brief season, but the bad weather drove him and the colleagues he was traveling with to Morocco. There, he painted Fumée d'ambre gris, the orientalist portrait that really set is career on fire (Totally gorgeous). Though Spain hosted him for only a brief period, he did, however, absorb a great deal about Spanish music and dance before he left the country, inspiring him for his future masterpiece, El Jaleo.

This was a study done in preparation for what would become El Jaleo. The theme of his Spanish dancer paintings is actually my research paper topic for this class. So different than his refined, soft socialite portraits...the portraits of his exotic spanish flamenco dancers are powerful, and dramatic, and evocative. He seems to be most interested in the most angular, contorted gestures and movements (hints of this, I think, can be seen in his society portraits too...from Lady with a Rose's awkwardly bent right wrist to Madame X's strained, backward reaching right arm). Capturing the movement is also important, seen in the SWISH of the dancer's shawl and ruffles of her skirts.

I would say more about it, but I'll save that for when I have completed my paper and can comprehensively share my thoughts. Gotta keep you guys on the edges of your seats, after all.

Portraits (women portraits, couple portraits, family portraits, children portraits, OMG, so many PORTRAITS!) were what made Sargent famous, but towards the end of his career, I think he was getting a little tired of it...:

"I hate to paint portraits! I hope never to paint another portrait in my life. Portraiture may be all right for a man in his youth, but after forty I believe that manual dexterity deserts one, and, besides, the color-sense is less acute. You can better stand the exactions of a personal kind that are inseparable from portraiture. I have had enough of it."

See what I mean?

Sargent was also a prolific watercolorist, and I have in NO way given you but a crumb-sized taste of what he can do, how he worked, or all that jazz. But hopefully your curiosity is peaked so you'll continue research on your own...:)

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