John Singer Sargent And Carrara Marble

I was on a train a few years ago rumbling past Carrara, Italy, and saw these huge blocks of marble.

Chunks of marble at Carrara Quarry in Carrara, Italy.Chunks of marble at Carrara Quarry in Carrara, Italy.

I couldn’t resist taking a couple of photos from the train window.

Seeing these awkwardly stacked massive cubes of marble and knowing that this is same place where Michelangelo got his chunk of marble for David, and where John Singer Sargent painted his watercolors of quarry workers.Thinking of these two superb artists made these passing this quarry on the train a special joy of stepping into art history ranging from the carving of David in about 1500 to Sargent's watercolor paintings in the quarry from about 1900 to contemporary sculptors and painters, today. Anthony Caponi, the sculptor and artist who created a 60 acres sculpture park in St. Paul, Minnesota, also used marble from Carrara. (Caponi died in 2015 a month after my crew and I finished a documentary, Artist from Pretare: The Place of Rocks, on his life as an immigrant thriving in the Midwest.)

Many people are not aware of the watercolor paintings John Singer Sargent did in Carrara during his time in Italy.

“Carrara: Quarry 1,” watercolor by John Singer Sargent, 1911.
"Carrara: Quarry 1," watercolor by John Singer Sargent, 1911. Tiny workmen--seen almost as stick figures--are seen working in several areas in the belly of the quarry.

A watercolor painting of men working at the bottom of a massive quarry.
Watercolor by John Singer Sargent of the quarry in Carrara, Italy. 53.2x40 cm. 1911. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A painting named "Carrara: A Quarry" shows the massive size of the bottom of the quarry as the workers are dwarfed by the huge slabs of marble that has tumbled to the floor of the pit. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Hayden Collection--Charles Henry Hayden Fund.)

As is typical in many watercolors of Sargent, to render the scene he favored a combination of a blue hue and a brown hue, possibly a burnt sienna and a cobalt blue. He saved a significant amount of the white of his paper to convey the brilliant sunlight virtually bleaching all color from the walls in the quarry that face the sun.

He included possibly a phthalo blue and an alizarin crimson to create some of the nuances of the shading as well as the areas that skew toward a purple or purple-gray hue. He may have used opaque watercolor (gouache or Chinese White) to accent the sharp white areas. He was not hesitant to use white paint to create the effect he wanted.

"Workmen at Carrara," by John Singer Sargent, 1911.
"Workmen at Carrara," by John Singer Sargent, 1911. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Olivia Shaler Swan Collection. 39.4 x 52.1 cm. This size is equivalent to a half-sheet of watercolor paper today.

This painting of some of the workers lugging a huge rope among them allows us to get a clear idea of the scale and character of the men. Sargent chose to emphasize the rope in this painting. He was not concerned with creating the detail in the men to make them recognizable, or even, in this view, to create the sense of the massiveness of the walls of the quarry. This painting is a study of a task that is common to these man: wrangling massive ropes in the service of moving huge slabs of marble.

As you can see in the painting of the quarry workers, some of Sargent's preliminary pencil lines refining the curve of the hanging ropes can be seen in this completed work. Sargent tended to paint "alla prima" in his watercolors, which is just jumping in to get paint on paper. He did a little preliminary sketching -- as you can see with the coils of rope-- but frequently the majority of the painting was resolved as he stood, or sat, at the scene en plein air and observed what was happening. Alla prima was not the conventional approach. But it was the approach taught by his most influential teacher and mentor.

To help you visualize the work involved in collecting these marble slabs for artists, the piece of marble that Michelangelo used to carve David weighed about eight tons.

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If you want to dig deeper:

  • Here is a lecture I gave about John Singer Sargent at at the OA Gallery in Kirkwood, MO in 2015. It introduces Sargent's early life, his education, and his approach to watercolor. Sargent (1856-1925) was an American artist who spent most of his life in Europe. My lecture covers some of the unique techniques that Sargent incorporated into his painting style. This is the first part of a two-part series. In the second part, I will examine and explain details on individual watercolor paintings of Sargent.
  • Here is a sort demo I did on YouTube about how to prepare to paint watercolors like John Singer Sargent.

    In the video I’m explaining how I prepare to paint a watercolor like John Singer Sargent. I’m focusing on the energy, composition, sequence of his strokes, and his layering. I have another video out explaining his watercolors, drawings, and the sequence he uses. You may be interested in that, too. The color is important, but due to the variations in the photography of the original paintings, and the lighting of the photograph, even the printing of the book, I’m not as concerned about the color exactly. I want to share how I believe that he "sees" the scene and how she thinks he wants to present his interpretation -- his "impression" -- of the scene. I use that term, "impression" with care, because Sargent worked among the impressionists and was intimately aware of how they interpreted the world around them and re-created it in their artwork in an impressionist style. In addition to Sargent, I mention various techniques and resources to help you understand the world of John Singer Sargent and his watercolors.
  • Thinking of sketching and creating a realistic portrayal of a scene… I suggest you look back at Sargent’s Carrara and Quarry paintings and see how Sargent plays with the sense of scale. Muscular workers are presented as tiny people--only a couple of brushstrokes, really– dwarfed by the gigantic boulders of marble. The importance of scale relates to a previous post of mine about the Lego store at Mall of America and its playfulness with the sense of scale. You can find the post here: Tigers, Transformers and Legos–Oh my!!

A number of paintings and drawings by Sargent are searchable and viewable on the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And, the American Wing at the MFA features many pieces of Sargent’s artwork.

In addition, pages from Sargent’s sketchbooks can be found as digital files in several of the museums who have his sketchbooks in the collections, such as the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums. Studying the pages of the sketchbooks evokes the ease with which Sargent captured the curve of a neck or the tension in a torso. It also allows us to see how the artist changed his mind as he worked from his sketch to the completion of the final work of art. And, as we can see in the quarry workers above, Sargent was not concerned about leaving preliminary pencil marks on his sketches or his finished watercolor paintings.

Sketchbooks reveal so much of the thinking and pre–work behind the artwork.

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