We are not unusual in our undying admiration for Sargent's painting style and abilities. What is less well known about him was his unflagging generosity and support of other artists, both financially, when needed, and in time spent teaching his painting methods to his students.
|The Spanish Dancer by Sargent, oil painting.|
We have recently discovered a fascinating book published in 1927 about his life and letters simply titled, John Sargent, by Evan Charteris. It sheds light on his approach to oil painting and to teaching as well. Sargent was famously cryptic about his methods, often appearing not to be able to put into words what he, by training and by instinct, knew how to do so naturally and quickly. His teacher, the great Carolus Duran, believed in painting alla prima, wet-into-wet, all at once, without laborious under-paintings typical of the era. All Sargent required was a light charcoal indication of the disposition of the model and the main masses before he would start right in applying thick paint.
|Violet Hammersley by Sargent, oil painting portrait.|
One of his students, identified simply as Miss Heynemann, wrote an account of a critique and demonstration Sargent gave her, excerpted here:
"…At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where light and shadow meet, not where the head meets the background) to indicate the mass of hair and the tone of the dress. The features were not even suggested. This was a matter of a few moments. For the rest he used his colour without a medium of any kind, neither oil, turpentine, or any admixture. 'The thicker you paint, the more the color flows,' he explained. He had put in this general outline very rapidly–hardly more than smudges, but from the moment that he began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak, holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall. . .To watch the head develop from the start was like the sudden lifting of a blind in a dark room. . .every stage was a revelation. . .He believed, with Carolus Duran, that painting was a science which it was necessary to acquire in order to make of it an art.
"Economy of effort in every way, he preached, the sharpest self-control the fewest strokes possible to express a fact, the least slapping about of purposeless paint."
Miss Heynemann's description went on at length to describe how Sargent could quickly create a striking, believable likeness with a few deft strokes of exactly the right color, value, and shape. Light planes were brushed wet into shadows, and vice versa. If he was not satisfied with his stunning results, he would often brush it all out and start over fresh.
For any Sargent enthusiasts, we recommend finding a copy of this book. It is great read.
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–John and Ann