Friday, November 27, 2009

Sargent's Repainting

I remember reading that John Singer Sargent would often require many sittings to get his portraits right, and that he was rarely satisfied with his first efforts.

But I always wondered: Did he scrape off each false start and then begin all over again? Or did he just work over the previous start after it had dried? How did he know when a painting was going wrong?

Thanks to two of his former pupils, Miss Heyneman and Mr. Henry Haley, we have an idea of his methods:

"He drew a full, large brush down the whole contour of a cheek (over one of her half-finished studies), obliterating apparently all the modeling underneath, but it was always further to simplify that he took these really dreadful risks, smiling at my ill concealed perturbation and quite sympathizing with it.

"The second painting taught me that the whole values of a portrait depends upon its first painting, and that no tinkering can ever rectify an initial failure. Provided every stage is correct, a painter of Mr. Sargent's caliber could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps -- but he never attempted to correct one. He held that it was as impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong, as for a sculptor to remodel the features of a head that has not been understood in the mass. That is why Mr. Sargent often repainted the head a dozen times, he told me that he had done no less than sixteen of Mrs. Hammersley.

“When he was dissatisfied he never hesitated to destroy what he had done. He spent three weeks, for instance, painting Lady D' Abernon in a white dress. One morning, after a few minutes of what was to be the final setting, he suddenly set to work to scrape out what he had painted. The present portrait in a black dress (above), was done in three sittings.

“He did the same with the portrait of Mrs. Wedgwood, and many others. Miss Eliza Wedgwood relates that in 1896 he consented, at the insistence of Alfred Parsons, to paint her mother. She sat for him twelve times, but after the twelfth sitting he said she would both be the better for a rest.

“He then wrote to Miss Wedgwood that he was humiliated by his failure to catch the variable and fleeting charm of her mother's personality -- that looked like the end of the portrait. Some weeks later he saw Mrs. Wedgwood at Broadway, and struck with a new aspect he said:

‘If you will come up next week we will finish that portrait.’

“She came to Tite Street, a new canvas was produced, and in six sittings he completed the picture which was shown at the Memorial Exhibition.

“I have also seen the assertion that he painted a head always in one sitting. He painted a head always in one process, but that could be carried over several sittings. He never attempted to repaint one eye or to raise or lower it, for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for the eye, and if it was wrongly placed, the understructure was wrong, and he ruthlessly scraped and repainted the head from the beginning. That is one reason why his brushwork looks so fluent and easy; he took more trouble to keep the unworried look of a fresh sketch than many a painter puts upon his whole canvas.

“The purpose of all this reworking was to: develop (in Sargent's words) ‘an appetite to attack the problem afresh at every sitting, each attempt resulting in a more complete visualization in the mind. The process is repeated until the canvas is completed.’

Thanks, Walt Morton!


Steve said...

I've reread this three times and it still seems a little confusing. Phrases such as "he never attempted to correct one" come up against "he ruthlessly scraped and repainted from the beginning." Then comes the passage about painting over one of Miss Heyneman's paintings. So, for students, he seems to have gone with paint on paint to make the changes. I guess the word "correct" means to lay paint on top of existing paint. Given your starting question (did he "scrape off" or "just work over") the answer seems to be -- in his own paintings -- he scraped off.

The phrase, "in one process, carried over several sittings" I take to mean he did the portrait without repainting any section.

Either way, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing several Sargent portraits this fall, in Boston and Chicago, and it is magical the amount of life and energy he could achieve in so few strokes. The light in the eyes, especially, is something to behold. In several of the paintings, the clothing is painted in a loose -- almost abstract -- gestural way but when you get to the face the brushstrokes become highly controlled and economical.

James Gurney said...

Steve, it is a bit confusing, but as I understand it, "correct" would mean to try to fix a misplaced eye or a start with bad proportions or gesture. Instead he would rub off all the wet paint and start again on the same canvas. (One of his followers, Lazlo would start again each time on a fresh canvas.)

But I believe he kept his paint wet and fluid with poppy oil (correct me if I'm wrong portrait guys!), so that he could keep working a portrait "in one process" or essentially "alla prima" in wet paint over a three day sitting. The eyes and mouth and such wouldn't be dropped in until the end, nor were the features carefully drawn in pencil or charcoal lines at the beginning. It was more like sculpting a head in marble.

Unknown said...

Good and timely post James. I've been looking at a lot of Lazlo's portraits lately.

craigstephens said...

James that's a great post, very insightful. Thanks a lot!

Daroo said...

Great Post Jim -- any favorite links to Lazlo?

Steve-- I don't know if he scraped off the paint completely down to the ground, just smooshed his wet paint together with a palette knife to simplify values or if, in the case of dry paint, just cover over everything with new wet paint (He probably did all three). I think the answer lies in the degree of the correction.

Here, I take "correct" to mean, if the eye looked wrong many painters would just repaint the eye in a new position, over top the existing painting without touching anything else.

Sargent assumed if the eye was in the wrong place then all of the underlying modeling of the eye socket was wrong too -- if that had to be repainted it would screw up all the edges of the cheek bones as they turned into the halftones ...etc, etc. The cascading effect of changing a single eye, would lead him to adjust everything eventually.

Because the key to his bravura, "au premier coup" style was achieved by working from big shapes to small shapes, wet into wet, I'm sure it was easier for him just to start over. It takes mental endurance and a lot of confidence to repaint passages you are essentially happy with, but Sargent makes the case that it is worth the effort.

Maybe if we painters would look at our finished paintings as analogous to musical performances, and all that restarting as just a rehearsal it wouldn't be so frustrating.

Kyle Andrew Phillips said...

This is refreshing to hear. I knew Sargent was intense about getting the right brushstrokes down, but not to this degree. This explains why his paintings look effortless, even though it is quite the contrary.

Jared Shear said...

Great post James!....thanks

Mike Bear said...

Thanks for the post James!

Also, I picked up your book Imaginative Realism and it's a treasure trove of information. It's great to see the way you work, makes me think of the saying "work smarter, not harder". Though, doing all that preliminary work is definitely hard work.

Begnaud said...

When I was a young student, I told my college instructor that I wanted to paint as spontaneously as Sargent. She said, "there's not a a single unplanned stroke in a Sargent painting." I was horrified at the time, but after a lot of looking, you can see she was right. His genius was in projected illusion of grace through editing. Thanks for the great passage that I can pass on to my students.

Rafael said...

That sounds right. I remember also reading an old account of how he painted a gold ring with gem stone, scraping it out each time he would reattempt it, trying to capture the essence of it in as few strokes as possible.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of artist aren't completely satisfied with their work.
Whether this artist painted over a previous work or started all over again, it can probably be concluded that he still saw flaws in his work (poor guy).

sfox said...

One of the things that really stayed with me when I read, I believe it was Henry James' account, about the summer during which Sargent painted "Carnation Lily, Lily Rose" was that a session only lasted about twenty minutes because of the fleeting light effect Sargent was after. Each afternoon, everyone (artist, models, parents, guests, etc.) would troop out to the garden (which was at EA Abbey's house in the Cotswolds. The one in a recent post here). James said that it looked to the observers that the work from the day before often had been scraped off.

I remember thinking, well, if Sargent was willing to simply scrap off what wasn't working, I certainly should be equally willing.

I really liked reading about his thinking. How many of us keep trying to correct as we go when what is really needed is, because the underlying structure or drawing is off, to start over, like Sargent did? I like Daroo's phrase "cascading effect". Too true.

In fact, I've got one right now....

Richard J. Luschek II said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard J. Luschek II said...

I have often described my way of working as "alla prima all over again". I work wet into wet on the blank canvas, trying to get accurate color, value and the basic abstraction the first session. The painting dries, and then I work on it again, wetting it all up.
The painting is always done wet into wet. I have been known to spend two solid weeks on a still life, and obviously paint dries. In fact it is recommended the paint dry. Corrections are made on the dry painting by re-wetting up the area and pushing it forward. As the painting progresses, smaller areas need to be wet up and reworked till finish is achieved.
In 'boston school' training we talk about Sargent a lot. He was known to attack the painting attempting to get everything he wanted in that first session- everything but 'finish' probably.
Successive days would be repeated. He would scrape as needed to keep the paint from building up creating a slick surface. My teacher described painting as "learning" your subject. So, as Sargent painted, learned his subject, the final day was dashed in with studied and learned strokes that had been painted over and over in the previous sessions.

Be said...

There's much more to read in a great PDF file that can be found on Craig Mullins's website(

You'll find it in "painting information", under the "misc" section.
Just click on "Sargent notes" to download the file!