People know American artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) for his body of work in oil painting, especially his portraits.
His portraits showed his distinctive flair for elegance and connectedness to his subjects. They included heads of state, titans of business, doyennes of society, European royalty, and his friends.
In addition to creating paintings in his studio, his work during his European travels included scenes of ordinary people such as shepherds, gondoliers, and dancers.
His famous “Gassed” painting depicted soldiers suffering from mustard gas in WWI.
Sargent selected a bedraggled line of wounded soldiers who had been blinded by mustard gas. They were stumbling along using the man in front of each soldier to help guide the following man. The painting was described as a masterpiece by the New York Times.
Even considering his virtuosity in his oil paintings, my favorites are his watercolors.
As a watercolorist myself, I vicariously absorb the joie de vivre and the spontaneity in Sargent's watercolors. He is having fun. He doesn’t labor over tricky passages. He does what he wants whether it’s been done before or not.
His relationship with James Abbott McNeill Whistler was often prickly. They met each other for the first time in Venice in the fall of 1880. Whistler had expressed his irritation at the eager anticipation by his peers of Sargent who was described as a “brilliant young American who lived in Paris.” At the time, Whistler, also an American in Paris, was still trying to rebound from his financial ruin as a result of the lawsuits between himself and John Ruskin.
Other buzz heralded Sargent for “making a sensational debut in Paris in his early twenties; Sargent became famous for his rapid execution of oils and watercolors.”
“to live with Sargent’s water-colors (sic) is to live with sunshine captured and held.”
Erica E. Hirshler, Teresa A. Carbone, and Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Watercolors, 2013.
“More than simply an element of the artist’s overall genius, watercolor represented liberation from the numbing labors of portraits and commissions.”
Carl Little in The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent
He was a natural artist, luckily, because he did not have a typical education to prepare him for any other profession.
His parents left the US for Europe in 1854, to mourn the loss of their baby daughter. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy in 1856.
Recognizing his artistic inclinations, his parents were supportive of allowing him to forge his own way in his art education. He basically spent his days drawing, painting and visiting museums. Toward the end of his teens, his parents enrolled him in a couple of different art schools.
One teacher, Charles Auguste Émile Durant, known as Carolus-Duran, was a favorite of Sargent’s.
In the collection of the Clark Art Institute, MA.
Carolus-Duran became not only a friend but a lifelong inspiration. Sargent’s style of jumping into a painting with minimal drawing was first academically introduced to him by Carolus-Durant.
A peer, American artist J. (Julian) Alden Weir, 1852-1919) met Sargent when they were both young men starting their nascent careers. Weir was already a student of Carolos-Duran when Sargent entered the classroom as a new student.
Weir wrote in a letter to his mother:
“I met this last week a young Mr. Sargent… one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across: his drawings are like the old masters, and his color is equally fine… He speaks as well in French, German, Italian as he does in English, has a fine ear for music, etc. Such men wake one up, and, as his principles are equal to his talents, I hope to have his friendship.”
“John Singer Sargent Painting Friends,” March 19, 2015, Barbara Gallati
Studying Sargent’s watercolors feels as if I am dancing with him arm in arm, á la Ginger Rogers. i move with him in synch to the rhythm of creating the painting. I can anticipate his colors and brushstrokes. It’s exhilarating to stand in front of his watercolors and reverse engineer the decisions he made.
Ever the fan of Sargent, I was honored a few years ago to demonstrate Sargent’s watercolor techniques to a group of conservationists and curators at the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard University.
I demonstrated various brushstrokes and the process with which Sargent created a watercolor. After my demo, I was asked if I could identify a mark on one of the watercolor paintings.
Here is the mark:
The staff had been wondering about this unidentified mark for a long time.
I recognized that it was a thumbprint. I have similar ones on some of my work.
Then I surmised, that if I was correct, there was likely a matching thumbprint on the opposite side of the painting. And indeed, it was there.
Let me explain how I figured this out.
As a watercolorist like Sargent, you spend much time outside painting in the open air. The Impressionists who were peers of Sargent’s perfected this opportunity due in part to the invention of metal tubes to hold oil paint and other metal tubes for watercolor. This portability allowed them to paint together en plein air in collegial groups and to learn from each other.
The whole concept of an artist being outside painting and not in a studio, was rather shocking. So, it fit in with the perceptions of those wacky, unconventional Impressionists. And, plein air painting is fun; it’s not as solitary as being alone in a studio.
When you are painting in the elements outside—especially in watercolor—if the weather turns nasty—windy, rainy, or snowy (!), you grab your painting as quickly as you can and run for cover.
A watercolor painting in progress or even a completed one, is a water-soluble creation on a piece of paper. It is susceptible to water and weather. That’s why watercolor paintings are almost always framed behind glass or plexiglass, to protect them from water damage.
When the wind kicks up or you feel the rain, you intuitively grab your watercolor painting on two edges. You intentionally place your thumbs at exactly halfway down on opposite edges the paper. You put your thumb on the front of the paper and your fingers on the back. You want to damage the image as little as possible.
Then, hold firmly, and run.
If you attempt to grab the painting by the upper corners, you realize that the paper painting will flap wildly as you run to safety.
With an oil painting on a stretcher, you could possibly hold it vertically with one thumb and a finger or even throw a drop cloth over it until the weather passes. A watercolor painting is wet and fragile. You need to hold it as flat as possible.
You can tell from the above comment that my respect for oil paintings pales in comparison to watercolor. Oh, I can hear my oil painting friends scolding me. LOL.
In any case, during my demonstration at Harvard, I was able to point out two thumbprints to the conservationists.
Two thumbprints. His thumbprints. Proof that Sargent touched the painting right there. Well, obviously he touched the painting everywhere with his brush. But the thumbprints are specific to one individual. It was really him!
Being connected has different meaning in social circles today. FOr example, you are definitely connected if you have a massive TicTok following. For me, being connected to John Singer Sargent included being able to identify his thumbprints on a painting. His thumbprints!
Whether a thumbprint on a piece of art, a relic in a cathedral, a ticket from a favorite concert, or a massive social media following, we humans like to stay connected.
Is there an artist you feel connected to? What is something you keep to remember and stay connected to this artist and a favorite experience?