How Did Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent See What they Saw?

How can artists pull you into their vision to feel what they wants you to feel?

It's "point of view." Every artist is hard-wired with a point of view. 

The concept is sometimes called an artist’s “voice.” For writers, voice and POV are more academically defined. But we will look at artists, specifically painters.

The overriding point of view (POV) for an artist is one of the essential characteristics of observing life in a unique way. Artists' point of views allow them to:

  1. Shape and limit what subject matter they are interested in,
  2. Influence how they observe the world, and
  3. Oversee how they translate their observations into their art.

In addition to the artist’s “hard-wired” point of view, in practice there are many “lenses” the artist uses to add a situational point of view. Meaning, an artist adds narrowing filters to find a unique expression for each artwork. 

This kaleidoscope of POV lenses can:

  1. Inform us of the artist’s relation to the subject matter. For example, it can be an emotional relationship. Or, even literally a relationship as in “father” or “student.”
  2. Show us the energy with which the artist is engaging with the art. For example, as with the brush strokes of Van Gogh.
  3. Can allow us to be a "watcher" in the scene, as in Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks" from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

4. Can allow us to be a participant in the scene, as I'll show you with some watercolors of John Singer Sargent.

5. Show us a technique that creates a point of view specific to the artist, such as the weirdness of Salvador Dali (my opinion—you don’t have to agree. :-) ) or Impressionism, or Cubism, or Van Gogh’s distinct use of brush strokes.

Let’s take a look at Claude Monet.

As one of the founding artists of Impressionism, Monet’s point of view was to create art that was an interpretation of reality; an impression.

In moving away from traditional French art of the era, he sought an experimental, less realistic style. His first paintings were scorned, as were those of the other painters who became known as the Impressionists. They were rejected as unfinished, and too clumsy to meet the standards of Paris Salons.

In Monet's career, he continued to study the nature and quality of light as it fell on objects. One of Monet’s lenses for his point of view became studiously examining the effect of light on the same object over time. To accomplish this he created several series of paintings to capture light at various times of day and in various seasons.


The Haystacks

Monet painted between 25 or 30 paintings of haystacks in the area around his garden home at Giverny between 1888 and 1891. He worked on the haystack series until he was 51.

The following description is from the Monet Exhibition Catalog (from the Metropolitan Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum, 1978). The description from Charles S. Moffett is a bit circular, but that’s what makes it beautiful and so profound.

Monet had begun to paint his "experience of certain phenomena rather than the phenomena themselves. This point was dramatically borne out in 1895, when Kandinsky, failing at first to recognize the subject of one of the Haystacks paintings, realized that the incredible power of the image lay in its evocative and expressive qualities, not in its representational ones. The concept of a unified series became increasingly important.”

Charles S. Moffett, Associate Curator, Department of European Paintings,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exhibit Catalog, pg 12.
Each of these paintings “is a metaphor for a particular mood, evoked by changes in light and atmosphere.” 

James N. Wood, Director,
The St. Louis Art Museum, Exhibit Catalog, pg 12.

Stacks of Wheat, (End of Summer)

Stacks of Wheat, end of Day, Autumn

Rouen Cathedral

Let's Turn to John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was a master in oil painting and in watercolors. Primarily, we’ll confine ourselves to his watercolors.

Sargent was significantly influenced by the instruction of his professor and mentor, Carolus-Duran (1837–1917). Sargent was a young, extremely talented pupil in Duran’s Paris studio in 1874.

He became Duran’s star student, and the affection and admiration was mutual. Carolus-Duran was an aficionado of the style “alla prima” or as I would say, just jumping into it.

Carolus-Duran recommended working directly on the canvas (or paper) with a brush full of paint. He taught that the he artist could “draw” with a brush, and then continue to complete the painting with brushes. No elaborate underdrawings in pencil or chalk were necessary.

This was a radical idea then, and continues to be fairly radical today for many artists and many universities. Drawing is a core competency for most artists and to breeze over it, or ignore it, can seem in conflict with good practice in creating art.

Sargent created over 1,000 watercolor paintings with the most prolific period of his watercolor focus after he retired from painting oil portraits in 1900. By that time he had grown weary of the demands of formal portraiture, which required an ability to create a likeness of your subject that was close enough to be recognizable, but was flattering enough to have the commission accepted and paid for.

He painted watercolors primarily for his own pleasure. At least certainly in the early 1900s. So the fluidity that he imbued in his watercolors was a great joy to him.

To start his watercolors, Sargent frequently drew a light, simple sketch with graphite pencil. Building on Carolus-Duran’s teachings, the concept of jumping right into it with a brief sketch. whether with a brush or a pencil became a consistent way of working for Sargent.

In the image below, you can see light preliminary lines where Sargent sketched out the loop of the ropes. Often he didn't follow the lines when he painted the watercolor. The graphite lines were just a suggestion to him.

“He absorbed from Carolus-Duran… ‘that in art, anything that is inessential is harmful…. And my aim has always been this to express the maximum by way of the minimum.’”

Sargent’s Watercolors: New Look by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. First published in 2017 on the occasion of the exhibition “Sargent: The Watercolors,” at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, June 21-October 8, 2017.
In his watercolors, he ”disregarded contemporary aesthetic standards…his confidently bold, dense strokes, loosely defined forms, and unexpected vantage points startled critics and fellow practitioners alike.”

Description of “John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors” the Exhibition Book, by Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone; Exhibit dates: Brooklyn Museum 04/05/13 - 07/28/13 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 10/13/2013 - 01/20/14 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 03/02/2014 - 05/26/14.

A more focused lens of Sargent’s point of view that I find quite humorous, is his inclusion in many of his paintings, of the front of the boat he was riding in. I notice it especially in his paintings from Venice.

It is a friendly convivial point of view--which I think was his nature as a person. The bow of the boats adds triangle shapes to the composition, and Sargent was big on strong lines and shapes to more the eye around in his paintings. But there is no strong reason why he includes the bow, other than to put his viewer in the boat with him. The front of the gondola or boat is often included in the bottom few inches of the painting to say, "this is your point of view too. You are sitting here with me."

In the image below, note the artist's gondola in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. We feel we are sitting in the gondola. Our eyes and point of view are in line with Sargent's eyes and point of view.

In the image below, The Grand Canal, just the edge of the artist's gondola is in the lower right hand corner of the painting. Perhaps you have to be looking for it, as in an inside joke between you and Sargent.

Although we can't see the front of the gondola in this image by Sargent, we know we are at the same level in the canal as Sargent and as the sleeping gondoliers. Sargent painted quite a few gondoliers, many of them asleep. I am guessing that they often snoozed while he painted. Probably a good gig for a gondolier if you could get it. :-) His gondola may have been sideways to these two gondolas so he wouldn't drift in between them.

Imagining the exact position of his gondola allows me to experience the personalities in this painting more intimately. You too?

This is one more reason why John Singer Sargent is such a favorite artist of mine.

More posts with discussions of artists' point of view:

John Marin’s vs. Edward Hopper. Rediscovering John Marin, American Watercolorist

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's (1908-2004) point fo view was to capture the "decisive moment." As I have described in other posts it is that fraction of an instant before something happens. It is that fleeting space between the past and what is to come. And sometimes, it is a horrifying moment when you can’t look away because you are compelled to see what disaster will happen next.

Here are two very different blog posts of mine on “the decisive moment:” 

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