Friday, March 22, 2013

How John Sargent found a painting subject


How did John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) find a painting subject? Sir Edmund Gosse recalled:

"He was accustomed to emerge [from the house where he was staying in Broadway, England], carrying a large easel, to advance a little way into the open, and then suddenly to plant himself down nowhere in particular, behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field. The process was like that in the game of musical chairs where the player has to stop dead, wherever he may happen to be, directly the piano stops playing. The other painters were all astonished at Sargent’s never ‘selecting’ a point of view, but he explained it in his half-articulate way. His object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision without the slightest previous ‘arrangement’ of detail, the painter’s business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever they may be.”
Related post on JG: Ninety Degree Rule
from “John Sargent” by the Honorable Evan Charteris, 1927.
The painting is called "Home Fields" from 1885.
New book: John Singer Sargent: Watercolors

20 comments:

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

Thanks for sharing this, James. I've heard this sentiment about painting from nature from Sargent, and from others like Richard Schmid, but have been a little puzzled by it. It seems to go against what the vast majority of painters will tell you about selecting what to paint, and even with artists who advocate strictly following nature, there's always a strong sense of design in the pictures. Might you weigh in on that?

Carol said...

Seems like Sargent had decided the game was to find the design no matter where he ended up plopping down.

David Webb said...

Being a watercolourist myself, I'm a big fan of Sargent's work in this medium and, when things aren't going quite right in my own work, I take a look at his paintings for inspiration. They are so clean and full of light. But, as Sidharth said previously, there is always a strong sense of design. From what I've read, these fantastic watercolours were just a hobby, when he was taking a break from his oil commissions.

Bill Guffey said...

Design is always installed. Sargent knew that. If only I could make myself remember, ever day, all day.

Steve said...

I seem to recall Stapleton Kearns is fond of saying DESIGN CANNOT BE OBSERVED INTO A PAINTING. IT MUST BE INSTALLED.

Steve said...

There was an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about Sargent and the unprecedented exhibit of nearly 100 of his watercolors opening April 5 in Brooklyn and, in the fall, Boston:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/arts/artsspecial/new-appreciation-for-the-watercolor-works-of-sargent.html?pagewanted=all

David Webb said...

Thanks for posting that link to The Times article on Sargent, Steve. I learned a bit more about him from that.

Tom Hart said...

I think that, especially considering Sargent's body of work, this quote must be understood as referring to the act of sketching (either painted or drawn). Obviously Sargent's finished portraits were about the farthest thing from "taking what was set before him". Many of the preliminary skethches he made were, on the other hand, largely impromptu, from which he chose the final pose and composition.

larry said...

Looking at Sargent's work I don't see a lot of fatalism there. There are an infinite number of decisions that go into paint a landscape, physical location being just one of them. Once he plopped himself somewhere, he must have considered near vs. far, clouds vs terra firma, the angle of light, the 360 degrees, composition and cropping. Masterpieces don't happen by accident.

Tom Hart said...

...exanding on my earlier comment: I've read this quote of Gosse's before, and I've always taken it to be a description of the openness with which Sargent approached the question of "what to paint next" (excluding commissions, of course), and not so much a suggestion that there aren't a myriad of decisions and choices that the artist makes, including where to "plop down".

Maywyn said...

Out here in the boonies of Alpha Artists' land, plopping down wherever one feels like it speaks to my heart. When the mind is saturated by the beauty of Nature, then selection isn't an issue. Being there to breath in what you see is. Why ruin the moment by putting energy into thinking about what to paint.

James Gurney said...

Sidharth, Steve and Bill, I adore Stapleton (he's a buddy of mine from way back) and have the highest regard for his work and his blog, but while there is a place for consciously designed images, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that the artist must always try to "install design" in a plein air study such as this one (if that's what someone was suggesting).

I've seen blog posts where people analyze and deconstruct the design of this painting "Home Fields" and I think it misunderstands what Sargent openly professed to do and what observers said he did: namely to paint exactly what was in front of him exactly (or as close as possible) as it appears. In Sargent's case you can see the proof of this in Ormond's recent book on Sargent's Venetian watercolors, where he photographed the views JSS painted from the same angles. He recorded the view very exactly as it appeared to him without moving elements around to make a conventionally pretty picture. I have a T-shirts that I made up that say "Slaves to Nature" and I wear the shirt and the principle with pride. Although I sometimes alter elements in a plein air study, I love to try to be a human camera: for example http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_Eiwce13X738/SFdrQ0w347I/AAAAAAAAC4E/nGJPZjXvzC4/s1600-h/Dalleos%26Motif.sm.jpg

Don Ketchek said...

I'm sure many will disagree with me on this, but this explains exactly why - to me - while Sargent is a great painter, I can't think of any Sargent painting that is among my favorites. While an interesting philosophy - and an artistic challenge - in my mind this lack of finding an interesting point of view leads to paintings that are not that interesting. They are interesting to painters for their application of paint and technique - not, in my opinion, becasue they are interesting in subject matter or composition.

Victor said...

"I have a T-shirts that I made up that say "Slaves to Nature" and I wear the shirt and the principle with pride. Although I sometimes alter elements in a plein air study, I love to try to be a human camera"

I find this to be a rather surprising and unsettling admission.

What I've always admired about you is your ability to create fantastical scenes that, while grounded in a study nature, build upon reality to show things that will never be seen in actuality.

In other words, I appreciate you as an author, and not a mere transcriber or reporter.

I may be in the minority, but I feel the ambition to be a human camera to be one of the ideas most damaging to the revival of good representational art.

James Gurney said...

Don and Victor, I say "human camera" and "slave to nature" with a certain irony, since those terms are used by critics who don't really understand the actual process of painting from observation, and those critics, without any practical understanding, disparage the task. In fact nature makes no slave of those who seek to interpret her faithfully. In fact, in my experience, it is the most liberating experience possible for an artist to lose himself in the process of trying to see beyond artistic conventions and preconceptions.

In actual practice, even the most scrupulous attempt to reproduce appearances comes up against the need to edit and simplify, especially in alla prima handling. What this experience gives to the imaginative artist is a deeper sense of nature's rhythms which can't be accomplished any other way.

Jean At Home said...

Sargent, unsurprisingly, again engenders great interest and some controversy. When I think of my favorite paintings a number of Sargent's come immediately to mind, though his portraits,except for that of Wertheimer and his dog, are not at the top of the list. The Capriote is another. But at the top of the list are his drawings, some of which are shown on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8Qrh8lzG3I&feature=player_embedded

Of course, even when you stop still and paint whatever presents itself, you make choices. To me his advice is not so much that you should paint by rote whatever you see, but rather that you don't need to go far and wide looking for a paintable scene. Everything has interest. Open your artist eye and it's there.

Janice said...

Early in my career, I had an art teacher tell the class that from any point of view - ANY point of view from where you are, there are a thousand worthy paintings.

I've tested that over the years and have found it to be so very true. It's comforting to learn such great painters as Sargent subscribed to this practice.

Now, I tell my own students the same thing - drop, flop and paint!

James Gunter said...

Thanks, James, for your comments about painting from nature.

David Webb said...

Here in the UK, I lead watercolour painting breaks at various locations around the country. On the subject of 'human camera', it always amazes me that you can sit a dozen people in front of a scene and, regardless of skill level, I have yet to come across 2 people in a group, who see things the same way.
Everyone sees different elements within the landscape which inspire. I'll often ask students, what inspired them to include, omit or move certain features and their reasons are usually down to personal taste. I think that, if I told them to copy exactly what they see, I would still see a dozen different results.

Gexton said...

He was accustomed to emerge [from the house where he was staying in Broadway, England], carrying a large easel, to advance a little way into the open, and then suddenly to plant himself down nowhere in particular, behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field.
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