Friday, July 13, 2007


John Singer Sargent

Last week on Metroblogging LA I asked Where Is Your Favorite Painting in LA? with my answer being Dr. Pozzi At Home by John Singer Sargent. (Dr. Pozzi lives at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.) That post got me thinking about Sargent and how much of his art I've been lucky enough to see.

I fell madly in love with John Singer Sargent's work about 12 years ago. I was in London in 1996 and went to the Tate and due to some major remodeling, saw only one small portrait there (Vernon Lee, 1881) but I wanted more.

Two years later, I was in NYC (for the premiere of Godzilla, of all things) for just a few days and knew there were Sargent paintings on temporary display at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the movie premiere madness was over and the day before I was leaving city, I went to the Met and asked for the exact location of those paintings. "Oh, that section is closed today." Oh no. My flight left at 6pm the next day so I asked, "Will that section be open tomorrow?" "Yes." Okay, whew. Next morning, I called again to make sure, "Are the Sargents available to see?" "Yes." Yippee! I taxi'd over there (I wanted to say "step on it!" but held back.) and got to the info desk and asked for a direct route to the Sargents. "Oh no, that section is closed today." My mind screamed WHAT?! But I kept my outward composure and said, "Oh no no no no no no no, they said yesterday it would be open and I even called earlier to check and I leave tonight." The woman said, "Oh I'm so sorry." She paused then said, "Hang on." She made a phone call then hung up then turned back to me, writing on a slip of paper. "Go to the Egyptian Room and see the guard by the rear door of that section, he'll take you to the paintings." My eyes wide, I ran through the museum and found the guard. He looked at my paper and said, "Come with me." I followed him through gallery after empty gallery and then he pointed to a corner of a large room with natural light and there they were. He waited off to the side and I stood and admired Mr. Sargent's work. The funny thing is, I can't tell you which paintings I saw there, I was so overwhelmed. I took a few minutes and then turned back to the guard and said, "Thank you." He nodded then escorted me through some large storage areas (I wish I could have said, "Hang on! I want to look at all this stuff in here!") and back to the front. Thank you so much, Metropolitan Museum!

A year or so after that, there was a huge show of Sargent's work that was only showing in London, Washington DC and Boston. I couldn't pass it up. I decided that I would go to Boston for the weekend and see it all. My tickets were for the first group on a Saturday morning and I'm glad I chose that time as there were fewer people to contend with.

The paintings blew my mind. Took my breath away. Knocked me for a loop. I have to make up some new cliches for how it felt to look at these beautiful creations.

(Click on each image for a larger image and please remember that recreations of most paintings, as good as they may be, just don't do the original work justice.) Dr. Pozzi was there.

Paired with Madame X.

And Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose with its magical lantern light.

There were amazing water colors that I didn't even know about and I fell madly for the ones that depicted Venice. (Venice being one of my favorite places on earth.) I love that he chose to paint Venice from the non-tourist point of view. The Rialto is probably one of the most famous images associated with Venice but look how Sargent chose to paint it:

And this one of gondolas near Piazza San Marco:

Not so obvious.

By the way, have you ever tried paiting in water color? It's hard.

There were a few paintings done while Sargent was in North Africa that really made an impression on me:

In the last of the the many rooms of the exhibition was a large canvas (about 9' by 20') entitled "Gassed." (Click on this image to see it much larger -- so much detail to see.)

Sargent had been commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to paint something large for the Hall of Remembrance. (The painting now lives in the Imperial War Museum in London.) He spent four months in France seeing the war close up and sketching. He returned to London to creat the final piece. It's a powerful statement on war. Notice the men it the far distance playing soccer.

After viewing the whole show, I walked back to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and sat on a bench there, just staring. An older woman sat down next to me and we began talking. Her daughters had given her a trip to Boston (from DC) for the weekend to see the show. What a beautiful gift. I am so glad I gave the same gift to myself.

I love Sargent's work because of it's straight forward nature. He's most famous for his portrait work and portraits can be so stiff and dull. But Sargent posed his subjects in not so traditional ways and somehow with his amazing technique brought them to life. Standing in front of the paintings, it seemed like if I touched the hem of a dress, I would be able to feel the velvet or silk of that dress, not oil and canvas. And most of the subjects feel like they are just about to step out of the image and continue a conversation you had started earlier. They are so alive.

If you get a chance to see paintings by John Singer Sargent, or any artist you love, do it. Go see the real things as often as you can.

Images from top to bottom:
Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881)
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Madame X (1883-4)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6)
Tate Gallery, London

The Rialto (1909)
Private Collection

The Piazetta (1904)
Tate Gallery, London

Fumme d Ambre Gris (1880)
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass

Bedouins (1905)
The Brooklyn Museum, New York

Gassed (1918)
Imperial War Museum, London

(All images are either from the museum website where each painting lives or from the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery.)


WOW. You sure are a Sargent fan! I had no idea.
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