Sargent Explores Venice

posted in: Painting | 8

As soon as Whistler departs Venice in 1880 a young John Singer Sargent arrives. He’s in his mid-twenties. His life has been one of continuous travel. His  mother pushed his artistic development  since earliest childhood so, quick sketches on location are as normal as breakfast to him. His early formal education under the Parisian master, Carolus-Duran stressed  careful observation followed by  a quick and confident rendering.  Duran called this process the  “au premier coup”  while the Italians called it “alla prima”, rendering your painting all at once.  Another  new criteria was to find a slice of life, ordinary life, a principle established by the Barbizon painters and the later impressionists then, quickly sketch in pencil,  watercolor,  and  oil.  The search for an impromptu slice of life was now in the 1880s aided  by the use of photography.  From French Salon painters to amateurs everyone was  relying on the effects, especially the cropping effects resulting from a photograph.  By 1911, Sargent frequently  used photography and observation to help develop his studio oils. He had lots of company from Gustave Moreau to Thomas Eakins.  Example one is a photo from 1911 probably  taken by Sargent of his sister and  friend from the side of a Venetian canal. Example two presents the later oil painting of the same year.  Notice the sister’s gondolier’s posture and the directional lighting.  By 1911 cameras were ubiquitous and easily portable.

example 1. photo april13,10,sargent, venice, photo,emily and friend 1911_edited-1

example 2. painting april13,10,sargent,venice, 1911,oil_edited-2

Sargent had many historical examples to pick from when finding subjects in Venice.  He always had a taste for classical architecture populated by figures in motion. He enjoyed the reflective surfaces of pavements and walls.  The reflected light  in Venice was  amplified by its water.  Even in this watercolor (example 3) of  Santa Maria Della Salute, a favorite subject of  artists, we can see the effects of photography. The out  of focus foreground elements (boats and contents) serve as a dark foil to the more clearly focused architecture behind.  This  depth-of-field focal differential is an effect  revealed in photography by controlling the size of the aperture opening .  The smaller the aperture opening the greater the depth-of-field focus on elements throughout.  The larger the aperture the shallower the focus for depth-of -field.  The lens focusing  can also be a determinant.   Sargent’s camera also allows him to play with novel elevations. If he puts the camera down upon (or close to) the level of the pavement he can give us a different point of view as he shows us in this oil painting in example 4.  With photography he can also bring the foreground pavement into focus and the background  can dissolve into mystery.  Notice he uses simple single point perspective here just as Canaletto or Guardi would have done a hundred years earlier.  Also evident here is Sargent’s fascination with  glistening surfaces and chiaroscuro effects of bright spots moving out of darkness , a technique learned  under  Duran and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  Another example of photography influencing painting comes in example 5. Notice the foreground triangular prow of the gondola pointing us toward the vanishing point and down the canal under the Bridge of Sighs. Looking through a camera’s viewfinder Sargent would have discovered such helpful compositional devices as  others also discovered them.  You may now reconsider example three and observe how again  he uses the prow of the boat to direct our attention into the picture.  This triangular gondola prow in the foreground proved to be a favored device of Sargent’s.

example 3.Santa Maria Della Salute april13,10,sargent,venice, santa maria della salute,1904 wc bkln museum_edited-1

example 4. pavement in St. Marks april13,10,sargent, venice, st marks pavement,oil1898_edited-1

example 5. watercolor april13,10,sargent, venice, bridge of sighs, 1904 bkln museum_edited-1


Whether interior  or exterior a textured and luminous pavement  with a distant mysterious atmosphere  were a steady refrain of  Sargent’s .  This view of Venice (example 6)  toward the grand piazza and Santa Maria Della Salute is all foreground  until we travel back to the high misty horizon.  He was aware of his friend Monet’s experiments with colored atmospheres and high horizons  as well  the works of  Turner and Whistler who had explored similar sensations in the same place, Venice.  Here, the  point of view is elevated, probably from a second story or higher window. I  am also  attracted to the effects of  linear perspective, luminous reflective  surfaces and a blurred or misty distance  which  I found  here, in New York . ( example 7).

example 6, grand vista 1880 april13,10,sargent, venice par temps gris, oil 1880_edited-1 - Copy

example 7, NYC, oil  48×48 april13,10,Times Square, Cab Fair, oil on anodized aluminum,48x48_edited-1

Again, interior or exterior Sargent was attracted to the spacial illusion provided by single point linear perspective.  He animates this space with moving figures. They are generally silhouettes with a vague suggestion for face or hands.  His figures offer  intimacy. They are closer  to us than those of Canaletto or Guardi in the 1700s. They have the feeling of a snapshot, a frozen moment in time which was an aesthetic principle celebrated at the end of the 19th century.  Example 8 is the interior Venetian example.  Example 9 is the exterior example.  Using the same compositional principles as Sargent, I wandered around Flushing Queens, New York and found  strolling figures in contre jour light, the same back lighting that Sargent used.  My examples 10, 11, 12 and 13 show some contemporary variations on Sargent’s themes.   I abstract the figurative and architectural information more than Sargent.   In example 10  moving figures dissolve into the urban distance as they do in example 11. In example  12  I introduce three point perspective  as the  street at first descends then later ascends into the distance.  In example 13  I pursue  further abstraction and image dissolution  from a single point perspective point of view.  If you are interested  in joining me in Venice  the last week of June and taking the pictures Sargent took as well as painting his scenes and those of Turner, Whistler and Canaletto then,  I invite you to call the Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Ct at 203 966 6668.

example 8. Interior, Sargent april13,10,sargent, venice, interior,1882 oil,carnegie mus pttsbrg_edited-1

example 9. Street Scene, Sargent april13,10,sargent,venice, street in venice,1882,natl gal of at dc_edited-1

example 10. oil, Queens, NYC april13,10,City, Thoughts in Passing, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1

example 11. oil, another view april13,10,city, Contre Jour, oilon anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1

example 12, 3 point perspective view april13,10,city, midday glare, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1

example 13, abstracting the motion.april13,10,city, keeping time, oil on andozied aluminum,36x36_edited-3




8 Responses

  1. William Child

    Love your oil’s in example 10 and 11! I guess they are all pretty nice! You can see some of the other artist’s of Sargent’s era in his works, but he definitely had his own style. Thanks again for giving us these great blog episodes!

  2. Keith Brooks

    Nice work, David. I’m proud of you!

    I’d like to know how Sargent controlled the masking fluid to get such fine detail.


  3. Fredric Neuwirth

    I am late in commenting as I’ve been away.
    Examples 10, 11, 12 & 13:
    Maybe it is the pallet or color choice that is to hard or to contmporary in contrast to Sargent’s soft color pallet that does not evoke the same quality of light and space. It is hard to tell in the blog pictures.

    I am planning to go to the Brooklyn Museum on 4/24 to see the orginals. I enjoyed reading the blog with the historical context.

  4. hugo

    out of interest, what makes you so certain sargent discovered these views by use of a camera lens? whilst photographical influence is undeniable – the unusual cropping etc – i have never come across any evidence explicitly stating he would work from, or even take, photographs. your post reads with a tone of authority, do you have any sources?

  5. Andrew Wylie

    I don’t think Sargent used masking fluid. This was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What he did use extensively, that would not be done by most artists nowadays, was use opaque paint, often white or white with a tint. If you see quality large prints of his work (or the originals!), they don’t look like modern watercolours at all because of this.

    • George Pratt

      I agree. I don’t think he used masking fluid. Did it even exist? But he did use a colorless wax crayon as a resist, which can be seen in some of his watercolors.

      Lots of watercolorists today use opaque body color in their watercolors, as Homer, Sargent, and Melville did. Only the watercolor purists eschew body color in favor of planning all the whites to be the white of the paper. Which is interesting because they heap praise on Homer and Sargent.

      Arthur Melville soaked his paper in Chinese White multiple times, totally impregnating it. This allowed him to do those sumptuous pull-outs for his lights.

      Edmund Dulac also used copious amounts of Chinese White in his watercolors, which gave his colors a gem-like quality. He would also employ colored crayons in his watercolors, etc.

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