Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What it was like to sit for Sargent

Dr. William H. Welch and three of his colleagues sat for John Singer Sargent, and here's how it went.

The Four Doctors by John S. Sargent, 1906.
The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore
"The first sitting was taken up with trial groupings; the following ones singly and in pairs. The artist talked incessantly of everything and smoked cigarettes continually while he worked. The boldness and accuracy of his work conveys the impression that he sits steadily at his easel.

"This, however, is not the case. He walked back and forth, talking and smoking, but when at the picture his brushwork was rapid and precise. At one of our group sittings he seemed in despair, saying: 'You all seem so much alike—four white dots on a canvas. It is not a picture.'

"With that he approached the canvas and passed the brush rapidly before it. 'I have it!' he exclaimed. 'There is a big Venetian globe in my other studio. If there are no objections, on medical grounds, it will make the portrait a picture.' I replied that there were no objections to its introduction: in fact, I thought it would be symbolic of Dr. Osler's fame encircling the earth.

("Unfortunately, the globe was so massive it could not fit through the studio door. Undeterred, Sargent simply directed that the doorway, and a good chunk of the wall, be chopped to permit the object's entry."—Gazette)

Welsh continues: "We each averaged two sittings a week, which owing to the artist's press of work, he was frequently getting mixed with the sittings of others, one of whom was Lord Roberts, who broke in on us several times. Dr. Osler gave the artist the most trouble. Sargent complained frequently that Osler was 'fidgety.' My head he painted on a single impression. The present portrait of Dr. Osler is the third attempt. He did not attempt to 'niggle' the first two into acceptability, but rubbed them out each time.

"Sargent's affability and unaffected simplicity are engaging, and his broad interests make him an interesting talker. He lent to simple incidents of the street the same penetration and humor that attended his remarks on art. At the time of our sittings he was anxious to finish his work in London and get to Syria in order to make sketches for his unfinished decorations of the Boston Public Library, which seemed to have become a great burden on his conscience. Contrary to the general
impression that Sargent is difficult to sit for, I never while before him felt that I was being scrutinized."
Source: Brush and Pencil, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Mar., 1907), pp. 95-99
More about the painting "The Four Doctors" online at JSS Gallery.


Ola said...

I love reading stories about Sargent through the eyes and ears of his sitters, it makes me feel more connected to his work.

Karl Kanner said...

Thanks James! This was fun to read :) I also like how Sargent was after making a picture that was actually interesting, as opposed to just accepting that it was going to be four heads on a dark background. The picture is still a bit boring to me though, as it may have been to him

Patricia Wafer said...

Fascinating. thanks for this post. A good reminder that no matter how interesting the subject it still needs a good composition. I will always think about how to "make a picture" from now on!

Daniele Guadagnolo said...

Osler is the Sargent of medicine!
(or vice versa Sargent is the Osler of painting)

Rich said...

Sargent just left out the corpse of Rembrandt's "Anatomy lesson of Dr.Tulp".Ö-)

Carole Mayne said...

Thanks for this insightful detail. I recently read ''Strapless'' and found it also a very good read about Madam X and Sargent in the times.

Evelyn said...

Sorry for the late post, but I'm just now catching up on James' blog from travels . . . . Those who can make it to Chicago by September 30 should try to catch the Art Institute's Sargent show, which opened today: