A guest post by Dallas-based contemporary artist Meg Fitzpatrick
John Singer Sargent is on my Top Ten List of best painters who ever lived. The Clark has lent four of his paintings to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and one of them—Fumée d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris)—is among my Sargent favorites.
Why is he in my pantheon? One reason is his masterful handling of paint. As seen in Fumée, Sargent manipulates the color white in a way that every studio art teacher can use as a textbook example of how to handle white. There is no color white in nature; it exists only in a can or tube of manufactured paint. And, every beginner painter (myself included) automatically uses it straight from the tube; and, thus fails to capture the essence of sunlight or the subtle recesses of a distant wall. From Sargent we learn a trade secret: mix white with other colors to capture on canvas what you see in life.
To imitate sunlight, a touch of orange is the secret. To render a remote corner, violet grey is the solution. Fumée is basically a monochromatic painting, but on examination you rarely see white “straight” from the tube.
Here are a few other reasons, which are evident in Fumée, that I greatly admire Sargent. His compositions are cropped, a device that was modern for his time. He was innovative in his choice of subject matter, using travels to exotic locales for ideas. The North African woman inhaling vapors in Fumée was an image from a trip to Tangier.
Since I’ve opened and shared my art voting book, my number one favorite Sargent painting is The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which is on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). I remember being fortunate my senior year of college when I was selected to intern at the MFA. I’d take breaks and visit this painting—simply staring firsthand at the masterpiece that I had seen in an art history slide lecture.
When I lived in the Boston area decades later, I would again sit on the same wooden bench before the sisters and sketch as a way to practice drawing and linger with Sargent. The study below is of eight-year-old Maria Louisa (the sister in the left corner). Of note, the Boit heirs gave the MFA the six-foot-tall, blue-and-white vases you see in the painting. They now flank this nearly life-size (87-3/8” x 87-5/8”) group portrait.
If you are a Sargent fan or simply like looking at an excellent painter’s work, I recommend the drive to Fort Worth. Sargent’s Youthful Genius: Paintings from the Clark is open through June 17, as is The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark across the street at the Kimball Art Museum.
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Fumée d’Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880. Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 90.6 cm. Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1914. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1955.15)