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Posts Tagged ‘Sargent’s Youthful Genius: Paintings from the Clark’

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.

Image Credit:

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)

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By Michael Cassin, Director, Center for Education in the Visual Arts

By the time John Singer Sargent visited Venice for the first time in 1880, the Most Serene Republic had been in decline for two centuries. This decline didn’t make any difference to the tourists, who still meandered around the city “elegantly killing time,” sipping espressos at Florian’s cafe. It didn’t deter the artists either; Turner, Whistler, Monet and many others were entranced by the light that shimmered on the city’s waterways and metaphorically dissolved the solidity of its buildings.

But, like an insider keen to show off his local knowledge, Sargent turns his back on “tourist Venice” and leads us off the beaten track, to a little place we’d never find on our own. It might look a bit seedy, with its dark doorways and its walls shedding stucco; we might hesitate to venture down such a narrow alley after nightfall, but Sargent’s confidence is contagious. His painting is a “snapshot” of life in backstreet Venice caught with amazing deftness and painterly self-assurance.

Turning abruptly into the passage we come upon a man and a woman engaged in some private interchange. The man’s attention is fixed on the woman (that salmon pink skirt is pretty distracting!).

The woman has noticed us, though whether she’s pleased to see us or not is hard to say.  As she steps into the wine store she looks at us with…surprise? annoyance? flirtation? Sargent leaves us wondering. And how should we respond?

Personally, I think I’d take a stab at a gracious apology, a “Scusi signora” and head back to Florian’s for another shot of espresso. Or maybe grappa. How about you?

This painting, and three other masterworks by Sargent will be traveling to the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, this spring! Sargent’s Youthful Genius: Paintings from the Clark will be on view at the Amon Carter from March 11 to June 17, 2012, as part of a joint program with the Kimbell Art Museum, which will concurrently host the exhibition The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark, part of the Clark’s international tour of masterpieces.

Image credits:

Carlo Naya (1816–1882), “Venezia. Riva degli Schiavoni” (con l’Hotel Danieli). Numero di catalogo: 88a. {{PD-1923}}

John Singer Sargent, (American, 1856–1925), A Street in Venice, c. 1880–1882. Oil on canvas, 75.10 x 52.40 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (1955.575)

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