Thursday, June 13, 2019

First-Hand Gleanings from Sargent

In his memoir, painter and sculptor Emil Fuchs said he asked John Singer Sargent for permission to paint in the master's presence in order to learn from him.

John Singer Sargent, portrait of Edwin Booth, detail, 1890
Sargent wasn't particularly verbal about his painting philosophy or his technique, but Fuchs was able to glean some helpful insights anyway.
"He never said much, but what he did say, one might do well to engrave upon the tablets of one's mind. One of the great man's teachings was the dominant importance of values over color. 'Color,' he said, 'is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely a training of the eye which everyone ought to be able to acquire.' "
"Value in art, as everyone knows, simply means the relation of light to shade. Sargent referred to this idea over and over, and it occurred to me that perhaps he meant value not in pictures alone, but fundamentally in all the realms of life. His work demonstrates his ingrained belief in this. I can think of nobody who can see and render values with such delicate distinction as does Sargent."  
"His palette was to me a marvel. His enormous wealth of color he produces with a few simple hues, mostly earth colors — white, yellow ocher, light red or vermilion, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, emerald green and black. His is a rare skill in using and combining them." 
"Some mornings he would come in and, without saying much, would help me in painting a difficult passage from the model. While the direct way of painting appealed to him, he fully appreciated the more subtle methods, especially that of grisailles and glazing, by which many masters obtain their effects of brilliancy. This method, perhaps I should add, consists in painting first in black and white, and then laying on a thin film of transparent color."   
"Sargent's veneration for the work of the old masters was profound. But Velasquez and Franz Hals were the gods of his Pantheon. He copied both freely. Of Velasquez he had in his studio a facsimile of the dwarf Don Antonio el Ingles, and of Franz Hals several groups from his large pictures at Haarlem copied by himself. If my recollections of our discussions about artists are correct, Van Dyck seemed to appeal to him the least."
"About technique it was always difficult to make him express himself in words. Rather than explain a serious problem, he would take a brush and paint that piece and the difficulties would vanish under his touch. When I worked at his studio he offered me the free use of his colors and even his palette and brushes which lay about in profusion. Few artists can bring themselves to lend these objects without feeling it to be sacrilege."
With Pencil, Brush, and Chisel by Emil Fuchs
Emil Fuchs on Wikipedia
John Singer Sargent on Wikipedia


Maximilian Redlefs said...

Wow, amazing that Sargent would let someone else use his tools that freely. I've never had the pleasure of sharing an atelier, but I'm somewhat doubtful I'd be as cool about it as Sargent.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

@Maximillian, this actually makes perfect sense to me. As one progresses on the ladder of mastery, one becomes less and less dependent on the tools. In the beginning we need all the help we can get, so, tools we are used to are very important; but I imagine Sargent could paint with a toothbrush if he had to.

Rich said...

I have delved into Emil Fuchs' works: It seems to me, he belonged to Sargent's "inner circle", kind of an "initiated" elect.
I may be wrong, but have my doubts if Sargent would have let lesser talents use his colors and brushes.
Kind of a "James Gurney" a century ago - but no need James, to share your paints and brushes; you share your expertise with us all in the world wide web.
Thanks James.

Luca said...

I've always tought that Velazquez was the most modern of ancient masters (at least as far as brushwork is concerned) and it has been a nice discovery to read that Sargent had him in great consideration .
But the passage about grisaille surprised me, since i associate him with very toughtful but direct painting (i think i read somewhere, maybe here on the blog, that he used to spend a lot of time thinking to the next paint stroke).
And i agree with Peter about Sargent letting his students use his brushes and colors: perhaps it was his way to convey the message that there's no secret magic in the tools, the magic is in the painter's brain...

Jason Peck said...

Wonderful post, thank you!

Berit said...

I just adore JSS, and cannot read enough about him/ his work! Thanks for this, always excited to see his name in a blog entry's title from you.