Sunday, January 07, 2007

John Singer Sargent: An appreciation

John Singer Sargent, "In the Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight," 1879

This is a favorite painting of mine. It is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. I have spent hours standing and sitting in front of it, looking at its details and layers. It is a post-Impressionist landscape painting, albeit a relatively realistic one, by a painter best known for his portraits. What's remarkable about this painting is that, if you look closely, Sargent has painted most of the walking and standing figures as though they were in motion; in some cases, they are blurred as if they were time-exposures on a photograph. This tends to heighten the feeling of depth-of-field, but also emphasizes the low light conditions under which such a photograph would have had to have been taken. I have seen many actual sunsets with just this perfect translucent gray-pink light in the sky, but almost no other paintings I have seen evoke it so perfectly. This painting is a different kind of realism: it has more to do with low-light photography than it does with photo-realism, and although it depicts a moment captured in time, it does so in the way a photographer might, rather than a realistic painter from an era earlier than Sargent's.

I also am reminded of an insight from José Argüelles' book The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression (1974). Argüelles spends a whole chapter in this book giving a convincing argument that the early history of photography influenced Impressionist painting. Certainly most of the Impressionist painters were familiar with photography, if only as a pasttime that was gaining popularity in cultured circles. One or two of these artists did make photographs. Photography, in its early years, was limited by its materials to long exposures: slow emulsions meant long exposure times. Thus, many early images show urban landscapes with blurred people, moving too fast for the slow emulsions.

This motion-blur is almost exactly like what Sargent is depicting in this painting, with some people standing still for longer periods of time, while others are moving and thus have blur, and in one case almost a double-exposure. I've looked closely at Sargent's brushwork, and in some cases, the moving figures as translucent yet precisely shown, on one edge of the blur, with the other edge of teh blur feathering out to a soft edge, exactly the way they would be in a long exposure taken under low-light conditions. This is truly remarkable, and I know of almost no other painted example of this photographic observation.

Now, here's a photo of mine:

I took this photo from Artist's Point, on the outer edge of the harbor at Grand Marais, MN, on the northern shore of Lake Superior, in 2001 or so. The photo was taking facing west, with the afternoon sun in a sky full of stacked cumulus clouds, with sunlight scattering on the shallow waves in the foreground. The Sawtooth Mountains fade into the haze, in the distance.

Whenever I look at this photograph, I think of Sargent's painting. I see his painted figures in the similar vertical shapes of the standing and walking figures on the causeway leading out to the harbor lighthouse. The shapes of the people are recognizable, but elongated and stick-like, reminiscent of some of Sargent's moving figures in the evening light. Although my photo was taken in the afternoon, I feel a strong connection between this photo, and Sargent's twilit garden.

So, photography influences painting, which influences photography, bringing the artistic process of visual representation full circle.

Sargent was an artist who genuinely looked deep into the reality of things, and was able to depict what he saw. He saw what was really going on, and his observations are insightful and accurate. I think this is one reason his portraits were prized: he actually saw into the personalities of the people he was painting. He depicted them as they are, with insight and empathy. This is what made him not just a good painter, but a great one.

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Blogger Will said...

Have you ever been to the Luxembourg Gardens with a camera? I find it a magical place which seems to make taking a bad picture almost impossible. Next time you're on this side of the pond be sure and get down there.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I haven't been to Paris since 1978, but I do think I spent some time in the Gardens. I have vivid memories of the gardens and grounds of the Jeux de Poeme, Notre Dame, and several other spots.

It would be nice to go back for another visit, soon, though, with camera.

I've been in several spots that are like that: so amazing, so magical, that you just can't take a bad picture, unless you really work at it. Some of my favorite photos have been from those places.

8:39 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

All right, John Singer Sargent ^^ You are indeed correct that I'm a fan of his artwork (portraits and otherwise). I like his Venetian series of paintings, particularly the way he did the water in those. My favorite painting (and my current avatar) is definitely Village Children; and so the painting inspires the poem.

Some would argue thatJSS isn't that great; honestly, I am incapable of technical analysis as far as visuals go, but *can* state I immensely enjoy his work.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Shameless said...

I've really enjoyed reading your posts of late, especially on poetry. I'd like to link to you .. if that's OK? Why haven't I done this sooner?

9:59 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Beautiful photo- I was there! I walked to the end of that lighthouse.

Now I've introduced you to Shameless. Have I? Hi Shameless. Art calls me the 'literary pimp'.

That's Ms. Pimp. Or Pimpette?

5:17 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Jessica Schneider and the Three Pimpet(t)eers? That'd be a good book.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous AB said...

Thanks for posting this painting. It has been engraved in my memory since I saw it once on a card but could not remember the artist's name. I thought I was never going to see it again until I saw it on your blog. You are so right about the gray-pink light. That is exactly what first struck me about this painting.

2:35 AM  

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