This past fall there was a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on John Singer Sargent. One aspect that I really liked about the exhibit is that there were many smaller works that Sargent had painted of his friends and of other artists as well as small figurative studies. The important thing to remember is that in these situations, Sargent was not trying to please a client. Sargent allows himself to experiment in these paintings and really be free to express or re-express his direction artistically. In many ways, one could see how his work matured from imitating the Spaniards to Impressionism to his mature decorations.
One thing that I was struck by was Sargent’s feeling of luminosity in these images. The feeling of light seemed to emanate from the figures. How did Sargent achieve this effect? Luminosity is not about strong color, but the balance between color intensity and the neutral. In most of the images, Sargent focuses on one dominant color that carries an intensity on a foil of a pervading neutral. This neutral could be black or umber (which he used extensively in the early work) or a combination of complements (which surfaces during his experimentation with Impressionism) or a combination of a dominant triad ( a red, yellow, blue/black). This foil of the neutral allows the intensity of the purer color to really be felt. It maximizes the feeling of light by contrast. Also, a neutral tends to take on the color of the complement when placed close to a purer color. Thereby creating an innate harmony that is subtle and elusive.
Another method that he used was his control of values. I found on observation that Sargent creates the greatest contrast of value, not within the confines of the figure, which one would expect, but between the figure and the background. There is an over-all unity of value within the figure that keeps it luminous and light filled. This stands in contrast to a darker, more neutral background. This is not typical of 19th century painting. In most cases the cast shadows within the figure are emphasized to create a feeling of the projection of form in space. By subduing the need for contrast within the confines of the figure and holding the values tight, the figure as a unit, feels luminous.
I am not saying that all of Sargent’s work falls within these parameters. But the work that sparked my imagination as an artist were those images he painted solely for himself or among friends. There he was the experimenter. As an example, the portrait of Mancini, is in many ways, Sargent’s exploration into Mancini’s own method. It almost looks like a Mancini painting. This type of dialogue between peers is most intriguing to study.
My work of late, including these small figure studies, is a product of my own dialogue with Sargent. Through this conversation with the master, I have experimented with these ideas in order to incorporate them into my own work. Not to be ‘Sargent like’ but to further explore the possibilities of paint.