Impressions of Sargent

This title is a pun.

Not a very good one, I’m afraid. It comes from an article I read in the New York Times about John Singer Sargent. Apparently, after the scandal following his showing of Madame X, Sargent was so disheartened that he began to paint like an impressionist. He even studied with Monet. I suppose he thought that he would try the artistic style of the moment.

The problem is, the paintings are dreadful. Sargent was a very bad impressionist, a second-rate imitator of Monet. The only one of them that is even passable is his painting of his friend, the artist Paul Helleu. Most of the paintings mentioned in the article and included in the slide show are flat, boring. The light is harsh. He lacks the delicate touch, the vibrancy, of the real impressionists. (The worst of them, I think, is this painting of trees on a riverbank. I mean, seriously?)

It is when he incorporates impressionistic techniques into his own style that he becomes interesting again, as in the paintings below. I took these photographs at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in the Sargent room:

I particularly like this last one, a watercolor of light on a wall:

My apologies, once again, for the blurriness. There are better examples of all of these paintings online. But what I take away from these paintings is the importance of finding your artistic self. Imagine, after painting Madame X, which is one of his masterpieces, Sargent painted the garish impressionist landscapes featured in the New York Times article. It’s as though he lost confidence in himself, and so he tried to be someone else. That doesn’t work. As you experiment with technique, and you should always experiment, you have to remember who you are, incorporate what you have learned into yourself. You have to have confidence in your particular vision and style.

Of course that is easier said than done, isn’t it? And I should say, of style, that it’s not something you choose, arbitrarily or in an artificial way. You don’t write in a style. You write as you, as yourself, in your own voice. And that becomes your style. I’ve mentioned several writers who have their own distinctive styles. I know some of them personally, and those styles are extensions of who they are, of their personalities, the way they view the world. So finding your style – it really is finding yourself, discovering who you are. (Which may be different than who you think you are. Writing is surprising like that.  I know that I’m a much more realistic writer than I ever thought I would be – and more literary.)

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2 Responses to Impressions of Sargent

  1. John Stevens says:

    Yeah, “Corfu: Lights and Shadows” is wonderful. I miss being able to just go and look at a roomful of Sargents when the mood strikes me. Weirdly, that was one of the favorite parts of my undergrad education; I horribly abused the privilege of free museum entry.

  2. There is no such thing as abusing free museum entry! I was actually shocked, after growing up in Washigton D.C., to see that in other cities, museums charged for entry . . .

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