The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on October 26th, 2014

I never can quite get over the ability of painters like John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) to capture the truth of a subject. We most often see this technical mastery manifested in his famous portraits, like this one:
Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida Sitwell and Family
From left: Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida, Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988), and Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969)
Oil on canvas    circa 1900
As you can see, he is extremely adept at accurately catching something of the personalities of his subjects and he is additionally able to faithfully render the colors, textures, materials, and surfaces of physical objects as they interact with ambient light.

I am particularly impressed by his works created with watercolor paints. Watercolor is an extremely unforgiving medium that depends on leaving just the right areas of the paper untouched so as to let the white come through as part of the work, and applying colored, watery washes in just the right amounts and under such control that they don’t travel across the paper beyond the artist’s intent or with too great a saturation. Not to mention choosing precisely the right colors and having the other necessary technical skills to suggest reality. Great care, discrimination, delicacy, and even daring are called for. So when we see works like the following nature watercolor that not only surmounts the technical challenges of the medium, but also faithfully captures the light, character and impression of a moment and place, it’s hard not to be impressed.
A Tent in the Rockies
John Singer Sargent -- 1916
Watercolor on paper
This is a work of suggestion rather than detail, but look at how vividly the sunlight plays on the outside of the tent and its poles, and how accurately the bright, bright light penetrates the fabric of the sloping roof. See the light and shadowed areas of the forest and the shaded interior of the tent. It is all so alive that you can nearly smell the characteristic odors of sun-warmed canvas, fresh air, and the resinous fragrance of the pines. If you’ve ever been camping under similar circumstances, it will not be difficult for you to identify with and enjoy the impressions conveyed here. You will know what it’s like to sit in this tent.

Especially striking is Sargent’s talent when it comes to conveying the illusion of water.
Val d'Aosta (A Stream over Rocks; Stream in Val d'Aosta)
Oil on canvas  1907-1908
Again, this is a work that is not trying to depict the subject in all possible realistic detail, but it is realistic nonetheless. Look at the differentiation between the active, rippling surface of the water and the shallow bottom of the stream with its darker-hued wet rocks and sand. See the glints of light on the stream bed, the reflections of the sky on the surface, the illusion of the clarity of the water, and the fish. If the image is not quite coming together for you, stand back a bit and look at it. It’s all quite fresh, lively, and bracing! So much so, in fact, that at this moment I’m feeling inspired enough by these outdoor works to seriously consider packing up my camping gear and heading out for one last 2014 Sierras adventure.

Posted in ART    Tagged with JOHN SINGER SARGENT, art, painting, WATERCOLOR


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