There is a fresh, familiar feeling about one of my favorite watercolor paintings, “La Biancheria,” by American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
La Biancheria, by John Singer Sargent, 1910. In the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Sargent was a bon vivant. I imagine him as sort of a Cole Porter (1891-1964) kind of guy with a paintbrush rather than a piano. They both were immensely talented, gregarious, and had circles of followers admiring their talents. They were incredibly prolific and inventive.
Similar to Porter, Sargent liked to sit down at a piano at a gathering or a “salon” and tap out tunes to the delight of the attendees.
They both loved Paris and Italy. One of Porter’s masterpieces was “I Love Paris.” One of Sargent’s masterpieces was a portrait of Parisian socialite “Madame X.”
Italy became a home base for each of them. Porter had a Villa in Venice and Sargent based many paintings in Italy, including Venice. One was “La Biancheria,” or “The Linen.” It depicts the simplest of subjects: linens hanging out to dry on a clothesline on a breezy fall day.
It is painted in transparent watercolor over a pencil drawing. The painting was created on a half-sheet of watercolor paper (15 7/8" x 20 3/4”). It is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
After studying this painting for years, I had the opportunity to see it in person, as shared with me by a curator from the museum.
It seems bigger, more imposing in real life. The colors are so vibrant they almost thrust themselves at you.
On the linens in the front, Sargent encouraged areas of paint and water to drip and blur together in what is called a “wet-in-wet” technique. That means the paper is wet with water before you add the wet paint. The watercolor blends with the water and the other hues to creates soft, blurry edges and an infinite variety of blended colors. Sargent may have tilted the watercolor paper on the board to accentuate the flow of water in his desired direction.
The foreground linens appear wet in a bluish gray color. On closer examination, though, the white linens contain elements of yellow, brown, blue, gray, and purple.
Detail of La Biancheria showing the drippy, wet-on-wet technique.
Can you see other colors?
Some bright white areas in the linens are created out of the white of the paper, as seen in the linens at center back. The shadows on that section of hanging laundry are created on a dry surface. (Not wet-in-wet.) This allows Sargent to apply the paint to dry paper and have it stay where he puts it.
By painting with this technique, he can create the precise sharp edges and strong diagonals in the shadow area.
Detail of La Biancheria showing the abstract shapes made with confident stroked on dry paper.
By using both techniques, painting on wet paper and painting on dry paper, he allows us to see the illusion he creates of both sides of the drying laundry: 1) the shadow side of the wetter laundry, and 2) the crisp white side of the drier laundry.
We see the top edge of the clothesline as a narrow white-ish stripe. He could have left the white of the paper to serve as the top edge of the linen. And, in some cases he may have. But frequently he used Chinese White paint, similar to a white gouache or white tempera, to highlight that narrow indication of the clothesline.
I hung my laundry on a clothesline last week and I recognize in this painting the zigzag shapes the fabric makes as it bunches up along the clothes line. If you have never hung laundry on a line, does that shape make sense?
Detail of La Biancheria showing the zigzag of the bunched fabric on the line.
Sargent is unconcerned if his pencil lines show, or even if preliminary pencil lines (which he chose not to follow), remain in the finished painting. For example, zooming in on the laundry in the upper right, fabric is apparently hanging from the branches of the tree. You see there are several pencil lines similar to, but wider than, the right edges of the white of the fabric. I believe he sketched out a few alternatives to the shape, and then decided as he was painting it, to make it narrower.
Detail of La Biancheria showing his preliminary pencil lines the the right of the laundry hanging on a branch of a tree. Or is it?
And speaking of the illusions he creates, as you consider whether the laundry is hanging from a tree or branch, notice how each piece is actually hanging.
We see a hint of the clothesline for the pieces in the immediate front. Yet, as we move back into the painting, Sargent is entertaining his creative muse while creating the abstract shapes of sunlight. It is no longer about laundry, but about having fun creating shapes and shadows. He intentionally ignores the rule of gravity that laundry must be hanging from something. He plays with us because most of the linens in the back are hanging “in thin air.” We infer that there is a clothesline, yet we don’t actually see one.
Detail of Sargent's La Biancheria showing the laundry hanging in thin air. We see no clothesline for most of the laundry.
In a similar vein, here is a painting I created a few years ago of the neighborhood in which Napoleon was reared (Ajaccio, Corsica). Notice the building at the right. I challenged myself to create the windows in the white of my watercolor paper with nothing around them. Could I trick people into thinking they see a wall there, when there actually is no wall, just paper. What do you think?
Painting of Napoleon's Neighborhood, by Jane M. Mason.
In a private collection.
Back to La Biancheria, the area that is the yard, the patchy grass under the laundry and the wild shrubs and trees in the background serve as a supporting cast to redirect the viewer’s eye to the hanging linens.
The grassy area was created with blotchy areas of green. It was not painted wet-in-wet. These areas need to stay in place, to not blur. The grass is patchy; not well manicured. Sargent added brush strokes in watery-green and in darker-green. He added strokes with blue, and tapped in burnt sienna and yellow.
We’ll come back to the yellow in a minute.
For the background branches, Sargent made decisive, gestural strokes on top of a gray sky.
The blobs of yellow were the last thing he added to the painting. On the original painting you can clearly see that they stand on top. This is an inherent quality of a yellow paint such as new gamboge.
An example of New Gamboge. I use Daniel Smith materials. Sargent probably used Winsor & Newton or Cotman. The "school bus yellow" color is bold and assertive.
By popping these thick dots of paint here and there—more in a technique like an oil painter, he was able to create the sense of the season; the last yellow leaves hanging on branches on a sunny fall day. Those 100-ish dots of yellow tell us volumes about time and place.
A detail of La Biancheria, showing the bright yellow dots of New Gamboge (or Indian Yellow) made by Sargent to convey time of year.
Sargent used a limited number of hues as he did in most of his paintings. For example in this painting he may have used only five paints: yellow, blue, burnt sienna, a red such as alizarin crimson (or what is now quinacridone rose), and a viridian (bright green). Only five hues.
Plein air watercolor painting involves not only the artist and paint, but the humidity, the wind, the ambient temperature, the slant of the painting as one paints, the changing of sun, light and clouds, and even the energy of the artist.
Sargent’s exuberance in painting is in the minute as he focuses on whatever is in front of him, and as he challenges himself to simplify the complexity. His watercolors always bring joy to me. I just smile and feel happy when I look at this painting.
Sargent’s painting of La Biancheria is about the:
- Gorgeous abstract shapes and watery shadows;
- Contrast between white and darks;
- Leading the viewer through a painting; and,
- Time of day and time of year.
Here's a photo from the collection of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, of Sargent watercolor painting.
Photo from: Biography by Elaine Kilmurray, author (with Richard Ormond) of John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).