Monday, April 6, 2015

How Sargent Interpreted Carolus-Duran

In 1879, at the dawn of his career, John Singer Sargent painted his teacher Carolus-Duran. Soon after, Carolus-Duran sat for a photograph. The painting was done from life, not from the photo; if anything it was the reverse: The photo was probably taken to match the famous painting.

Since the two images share a similar pose and lighting, it's possible to compare them for some insights into the subtle choices that Sargent must have been making.

1. Values of the skin tones are simplified and organized.
2. The principle highlights are reserved for the forehead and the nose.
3. The values of the hair are greatly simplified.
4. The mustache is twirled into up-facing points.
5. The face is slightly slimmer.
6. The eyebrows and eyes are drawn with more definite angles.
7. Throughout, there's a visual theme of the heart- or chevron-shape.

People who watched Sargent paint a portrait marveled at the process: "The lightness and certainty of his touch was marvelous to behold. Never was there any painter who could indicate a mouth with more subtlety, with more mobility, or with keener differentiation. As he painted it, the mouth bloomed out of the face, an integral part of it, not, as in the great majority of portraits, painted on it, a separate thing. He showed how much could be expressed in painting the form of the brow, the cheekbones, and the moving muscles around the eyes and mouth, where the character betrayed itself most readily; and under his hands, a head would be an amazing likeness long before he had so much as indicated the features themselves. In fact, it seemed to me the mouth and nose just happened with the modeling of the cheeks, and one eye, living luminous, had been placed in the socket so carefully prepared for it."

The painting won an Honorable Mention at the Salon, and an observer noted, "There was always a little crowd around it and I overheard constantly remarks in favour of its excellence."*

Adapted from "John Sargent" by Evan Charteris (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1927).
* from John Singer Sargent, Complete Paintings, Volume 1: The Early Portraits (Vol 1)

Previously: A similar comparison with his portrait of Coventry Patmore


Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Photo vs painting...The photo clearly shows the wide face is significantly a major part of the subject's visual character. The painting, methinks, would be more interesting had Sargent taken that route.

Michael Pianta said...

And this is a good illustration of why, to my eye, a good portrait is much superior to a photograph. Sargent's portrait is a much more interesting and engaging to me.

I had a chance to examine this painting in person a few months ago when it was showing at a museum near me. The whole thing is quite impressive. The hands and fingers in particular seemed very skillfully made. Sargent has a way of making it look as though he barely had to try. Like a half dozen quick brush strokes was all he needed to render this perfect hand with this elegant gesture. Of course, we know that in reality he labored over things a bit more than that.

Glenn Tait said...

Carolus-Duran's face does appear thinner and this is more evident in the Coventry Patmore portrait/photo comparison but may highlight the issue of photographic distortion along with the old adage in photography that the camera can add 10+ pounds to the human subject.

I have a cast life-mask of Ben Franklin which I have photographed numerous times (different viewing distances and lens) and have been amazed at the the various areas of distortion evident when the the photos are compared to the cast. One of the main differences is that the head looks much wider/heavier in the photos.

Jim Douglas said...

FYI: If you're interested in seeing Sargent's 1879 portrait of Carolus-Duran in person, the painting is exhibited at the Clark Art Institute:

225 South Street
Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thank you for posting this, James, and thanks to a mutual friend who gave me a heads up about it this morning. Your blog is always enjoyable and informative to read.

If I may be so bold to add, all painters make modifications to their subjects as they work to some degree, whether such changes are consciously executed or not, or if they simply appear as an artifact that represents the limits of ability.

What is seldom discussed when making such comparisons is what the expectations of the sitters may have been, or how the sitter may have perceived themselves, and how such expectations might have affected the artist who wielded the brush. I do not doubt that Sargent was in full control of what he chose to modify, but in addition, it seems likely that other unspoken reigning cultural ideas about beauty, nobility, and veneration may have come into play as well. Perhaps without Sargent being aware of it.

For example, many art forgeries are 'discovered' after the fact once enough time has passed, similar to the way a so-called historically accurate period film can begin looking a bit dated after a few years, even thought much expertise and effort was invested in the styling and propping of the movie. It's not that the art directors, set designers, writers, directors, and actors didn't set out to be true to the time period being portrayed, it is more that somehow the unconscious zeitgeist of the day seems to sneak in. And it take time for the audience to spot it.

But I digress...

In my opinion, no matter how the portrait of Carolus-Durand is now viewed, or by what metric one values it today, the painting remains a masterwork and worth serious study. Still, I have to wonder what the relationship between Carolus-Durand and Sargent might have been at this point, when by most accounts potential patrons were now judging the Pupil to have surpassed the Master – a painful moment for Carolus-Durand, I imagine. It seems there could be a novel or perhaps movie in that somewhere... :-)

Allen Garns said...

What Mr Kitts said!
"many art forgeries are 'discovered' after the fact once enough time has passed, similar to the way a so-called historically accurate period film can begin looking a bit dated after a few years, even thought much expertise and effort was invested in the styling and propping of the movie. It's not that the art directors, set designers, writers, directors, and actors didn't set out to be true to the time period being portrayed, it is more that somehow the unconscious zeitgeist of the day seems to sneak in. And it take time for the audience to spot it."

Some of most evident examples of this phenomena are the Vermeer forgeries by Van Meegeren.

Unknown said...

I wish we could see the underpaiinting involved since there was where the real action happened!
Really interesting photo vs painting example. I wonder how often Sargent used photo references?
Thank you for your article- interesting as always!

J. Anthony Stubblefield said...

In my college figure drawing classes I had a classmate who's gesture drawings always looked just like the model, in that even from the few lines you could recognize the face, while mine were barely recognizable as human. He wasn't even going into the fine arts, it used to piss me off he was so good...

James Gurney said...

Jennifer, Maybe I didn't explain it well enough, but the painting was done completely from life, and the photo was taken from a similar angle after the painting was completed. Sargent did not work from this photo.

Tom, regarding C-D response to the portrait, it's reasonable to suppose that he had a great deal of pride his celebrated student and the celebrated painting. It was the talk of Paris, and therefore a good reflection on him—not to mention that JSS made him look pretty dashing. Sargent received six commissions for other portraits after the portrait of C-D was the hit of the Salon and much written about. Another piece of evidence that the portrait gave C-D felt good about the portrait was that he kept a sketch of it in his studio and showed it to guests years afterward. Carolus owned the portrait until finances forced him to sell it, and later when he had a chance to buy it back, he did.

Jim, you're right, this is usually at the Clark, but it's in London now at the 'Sargent's Friends' exhibit. It will be at the Metropolitan museum this summer.

J.Anthony, Judging from Sargent's unfinished sketches and portraits, he also had that ability to get at the likeness right away.

J. Allen and Thomas, so true what you say about not being able to escape our times. It's in the DNA of every paint stroke.

Glenn, you raise an interesting point about photo distortions of the width of the face. It would be interesting to know how far back the camera was from the subject.

Bryan A. C.P. said...

I'm inclined to agree with the idea that the photograph of Carolus-Duran has distorted him instead of Sargent with his painting.

There's an obvious shadow on the right side of his face, starting at the temple, that I would understand as a side plane to his head. The early photograph doesn't really seem to capture the depth of that receding plane.

I will say though that it's most likely that both works distort his look. It's still amazing how we can see both works and recognize the same person.

Glenn Tait said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Such an inspiration. I just love how an artist can capture that... something... that a photo just never can. It's like they put life energy into it or something!

Brian Anderson said...

Maywyn, how many years later did the subject decide to take a photograph in the same pose? Younger faces do tend to be less robust.

James Gurney said...

Daily Sketcher and Mawyn, I wondered that too. Wikipedia, where I found the photo of C-D, said it was circa 1880, which would be the year after the painting. That makes sense to me, and would explain the matching pose. He probably had to rest his head on his hand for the long photo exposure, and because of the tilt, I bet he had to pose that way for Sargent, too.

Bryan, I agree with you and others that BOTH the photo and the painting distort how he looks in different ways. So maybe it's misleading for me to set up the comparison as if the photo was some sort of objective standard. The way someone looks is entirely subjective anyway, based on our human "meat cameras." One could set up the discussion by saying that Sargent's painting is a sort of perceptual standard, and we could catalog ways the camera distorts that truth.

dave said...

Were it possible to view the living Carolus-Duran, the Sargent painting, and the photograph side by side I am certain that each would be different to the other.

I had the fun of sitting and having my portrait painted simultaneously by about a dozen artists at a workshop I was attending. All were veiwing me in the same pose at the same time and yet the resulting portraits were each quite different.

Susan Krzywicki said...

This reminds me of the discussions around Photoshop being used to slim people down and pretty them up. The idea that Sargent got so many commissions out of this - do you think any of those people were influence by knowing the subject, and then seeing the painting, and then saying to themselves, "I want some of that"?

Do you think Sargent may have counted on that?

Susan Krzywicki said...

Oh, and I should have mentioned that my own thumbnail photo used here is an example of just that - when the photographer showed me the results of his efforts on some rather casual snaps he took, I almost broke out in tears I looked so good.

So, we are all human and complex, aren't we?

Björn said...

Remember, most of the value effects and slimming down of the face is probably attributed to the camera lens and focal length. It's safe to say that the Sargent is a much closer interpretation of reality, albeit skewed and simplified, than the photograph.

Jason Jenkins said...

The camera lens flattens and distorts. Odds are Sargent's portrait was actually the truer likeness.

J.LaRae said...

Just for fun, do you think he may have decided to put a touch of Dali in his face?....maybe a bit of satire?

J.LaRae said...

Possibly added a bit of satire by giving him a Salvador Dali look?

J.LaRae said...

Just for fun, do you think he may have decided to put a touch of Dali in his face?....maybe a bit of satire?

Unknown said...

D.Beach Sargent painted in the tradition of Elegant Society Portrait painters. Down through history they elongated the nose and face and added inches onto ladies necks. They were portrayed as Nobles or just plain noble looking. In Sargent's letters to Walter Clark and Edith Wharton he describes the predicament of painting in his style, obtaining a likesness and being ridiculed by the critics. He even stopped painting portraits for four years and women altogether.

Douglas K said...

A unique opportunity for me to gather new insights into Sargent's work. Thank you James!

Tony Tommasi said...

One of my favorite paintings, saw it at a display of other major works of Sargent at the Met a few years ago. I suspect the nose is slightly elongated (comparing against the photo assuming its accurate). It seems like all the other lines more or less match except for the eye brows. but since the nose is elongated slightly, and because hes consistent with all the other lines, his face looks thinner. Im curious how he draws the face, does he start with the oval of the face and render all parts relative to that or does he go with some other starting point?