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Art & artists

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Impressionism’

— December 2011

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

John Singer Sargent, The Blue Bowl

John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899. Volume V

Edited by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray

In 1883 Sargent moved from Paris to London, and during the next 16 years, while developing his English portrait practice (covered in Volumes I and II of this  catalogue raisonné)  he experimented with his own form of Impressionism.  The most popular of these works,  Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose   (1883) is extensively explored here. This volume includes many previously unpublished letters from Sargent to Claude Monet (both the original and a translation from Sargent’s somewhat idiosyncratic French) and a discussion of how his involvement with French art of the 1870s and ’80s affected Sargent’s work, in particular, his relationship with Monet.  

Sargent’s interpretation of Impressionism is at the heart of the essays by the authors and of the Preface by Warren Adelson (who has been so much part of this great achievement, which is still in progress).  There is a suggestion that a  plein air  portrait of Judith Gautier (c. 1883)  influenced Monet’s well-known paintings of his stepdaughter, Suzanne Hoschedé (1886) and that of his wife (1875); but no one is claiming Sargent as a true Impressionist.  His skills lie in a seemingly effortless ability to capture the atmosphere and colour of whatever subject caught his fancy, or the beauty or status of his sitters.  This volume is more concerned with the subjects Sargent chose himself than with commissioned portraits, which he came to resent and subsequently abandon in 1908.

The Javanese dancers, who were part of the Exposition universelle that so entranced the French in 1889, are here recorded.  The watercolours made in Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain, North Africa and Italy had an ulterior motive.  In 1890 Sargent had  begun to work on the mural cycle for the Boston Public Library.  This immense project was important to the artist, as it would create a permanent example of his inventive and versatile art in the country to which he belonged by heritage if not by birth (he was born in Florence while his American parents were staying there). 

As the volumes are designed to be read as a whole, the reader may have to refer back and forth somewhat; but each volume has been thoroughly equipped with provenance, exhibition history, bibliography for each entry,  and refers the reader to previous volumes, or sometimes, as in this case forward to Volume VI which was published before Volume V.           

The story of the creation at the Barnard’s house in the Cotswolds of Carnation, Lily, Lily , Rose has always fascinated those who see it at Tate Britain (it is part of the Chantrey Bequest  and was bought directly  from the Royal Academy in 1887). This  ‘fearful difficult subject’ followed his Garden Study of the Vickers Children (c. 1884 – see Volume I, The Early Portraits, no. 134).    Neither are impressionist paintings at all.   The later picture took a terrible toll on the artist (and his sitters, two small girls), as he dashed from the tennis court to take up his stance at his easel  en plein air  to capture the fading light at just the right moment; dashing back and forth like a ‘wagtail’ .

The overhead angle is more that of Degas than Monet, the horizon more Japanese than realistic. The lilies were grown in pots by Mrs Barnard, and the girls wore mackintoshes when it was too cold for them to pose in their white dresses.  Yet from this compromise comes an iconic picture of an idyllic childhood in the gloaming, the title taken from a popular song. 

Sargent’s response to the English countryside, from Henley and Fladbury to Whitby  in the company of his friends is explored and defined in the essays and entries.  These make an interesting contrast to his foreign studies and show how various he was.

Sargent was a magpie – with the ability to fuse his gatherings into a very distinct style of his own.  His time in Paris made him aware of the current trends there, but his daring portrait of Madame Gautreau outlawed him from subsequent success at the Salon. His early recognition in Britain is partly recorded here.  His visits to Loch Moidart in 1896 produced watercolours of a coolness that contrasts with the warmth of those of the south of Europe. He went back to the United States regularly throughout his life, and the watercolours in this volume remind us of his transatlantic heritage.

There is an Appendix which includes works unrecorded in  Volume IV: Figures and Landscapes 1874–1882,  which is the immediate predecessor of this welcome volume in the march towards the complete  catalogue raisonné.

John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899,  Volume 5 by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray is published by Yale University Press, 2010. 392 pp., 311 colour and 127 mono illus, £50.00. ISBN 978-0-300-1611-3


Rosa Somerville
The Wallace Collection, London

Editor's notes

Previous volumes in this series are:
(Volume 1) John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings: Early Portraits edited by Richard Ormond (1998)
(Volume 2) John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings: Portraits of the 1890s edited by Richard Ormond   (2002)
(Volume 3) John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings: Late Portraits  edited by Richard Ormond (2003)
(Volume 4) John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings: Figures and Landscapes, 1874–1882edited by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray (2006)
All volumes are published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

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