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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Sargent Notes

Sargent Notes

John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: Chalets, about 1909-1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, iphoto of notebook cover

I am writing this in a notebook that has on the cover of it a part of a Sargent water color.  It's of a house, gray and brown mingled in the wash, with a roof speckled and dashed with white.  An ordinary small mountain house, to which a stone wall in the shape of an S rises.

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Watercolor is a medium in which it is easy to lose the structures of things, but here everything has the shape that is proper to it because it does not wish to be otherwise. They are what they are, the house, the green slopes, the rising S of the wall, the gray sky.  They do not blame or advise.

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I think Sargent thought that, for an artist, it is good to be sketching.  That is how to be a house, considering and calm, between the hill and the sky, how to follow and care for a wall of long stone dashes, rising in the shape of an S.  




Monet at Work

Monet at Work

Monet, Houses of Parliament


I hadn’t appreciated what it meant to Monet to work in a series.  I knew the haystacks and the cathedrals and the water lilies showed different times of day – that you could see the morning in the yellow light along one edge of a bridge or doorframe and the evening in the lavender along the other – but I hadn’t really thought through how Monet would then actually have to work on them. I assumed, I think, that he began, say on a morning painting of haystacks, finished that one and then moved on to one of the afternoon. But he was painting actual haystacks and of course the effects he was interested in were only visible for perhaps an hour, or much less on any given day. He had to work on the whole series at once, and he switched from canvas to canvas as the light changed.

This is an extraordinary feat of concentration, like playing simultaneous chess games.  Although the paintings in a series all had cathedrals in them each one was different in cast, in the range of color and emotion. Imagine working simultaneously on ten essays and switching every hour. Watching Monet, surrounded by his canvases, made a vivid impression, and he and his friends left wonderful glimpses of what he was like at work.

Monet apparently began working in series as early as 1885, when he went back to locations where he had painted with Boudin, Jongkind and Courbet.  Guy de Maupassant, who had that year published his second novel, Bel Ami, remembered watching Monet at work at Entretat:

I often followed Claude Monet in search of impressions.  He was no longer a painter, in truth, but a hunter.  He proceeded, followed by children [possibly his own and Mme Hoschedé’s] who carried his canvases, five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of day and with different effects.  He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky.  Before his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brush strokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed….I have seen him thus seize a glittering shower of light on the white cliff and fix it in a flood of yellow tones which, strangely, rendered the surprising and fugitive effect of that unseizable and dazzling brilliance.  On another occasion he took a downpour beating on the sea in his hands and dashed it on the canvas – and indeed it was the rain that he had thus painted…. (1)

There were some further ways in which Monet conceived of ‘working in a series.’  Although he was wary of talking about studio work, far from the plein air that was the Impressionists’ rallying cry, still the series were finished in the studio. To feel balanced and deep, a picture needed the period of further consideration possible in the studio. There, too, he worked on what might be called their “seriesness,” laboring to distinguish each from the others and to assemble a set of impressions and effects of light that made sense as a group. This meant that none of them were finished until all of them were finished.

The group often referred to as the fundamental series is those of the haystacks, perhaps because the method was there worked out completely, or because Monet intended to show them as a group, and did, with Durand-Ruel, in 1891. He had apparently thought he would have just two canvases – one was to show sunlight and the other gray weather. But, as he worked, the effects he wanted to catch, those that demonstrated what he called “instantaneity,” multiplied, and in the end he showed fifteen pictures. These were a financial success, the dealer was able to sell them for between 3,000 and 4,000 francs.  

Monet was then fifty-one; Impressionism had won its initial battles, but it was still not easy to make a living.  The idea to work in series emerged as Monet was beginning to be a successful artist, and the success of the series themselves helped him to continue working in this unusual way. It required a substantial outlay for him to get the canvas and materials to begin so many pictures at once, and then he continued working on them for years before the group could be ready for sale.  As he wrote to his wife Alice Monet from London, “I have something like sixty-five canvases covered with colors…What a bill I’m going to have at Lechertier!” (2)

The London series (those of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, done between 1899 and 1904) are the culmination of the method. As he matured, Monet chased increasingly fugitive effects. “I adore London,” he told the dealer René Gimpel, “it’s a mass, an ensemble, and it’s so simple. Then in London, above all what I love is the fog.” On another occasion he said, “without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it is magnificent breadth.  Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” In 1901, he wrote to Alice, “I can’t tell you about this fantastic day.  What marvelous things, but only lasting five minutes, it’s enough to drive you crazy.  No, there’s no land more extraordinary for a painter.” (3)

A lovely exhibition catalog for the show Monet in London with text by Grace Seiberling points out that this adored fog was the result of heavy pollution. Monet sometimes let the industrial browns and greens go, but he saw it all, as he explained to an interviewer, also in 1901:

The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs…. Objects change in appearance in a London fog quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas. (4)  

He was beset by difficulties.  His friend Sargent would come to visit him at the Savoy Hotel, where Monet stayed in part because of the balconies directly over the Thames.  There, Sargent said he “found him surrounded by some ninety canvases – each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames.  When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.” The situation was almost ridiculous.  He would sit among his hundred canvases, an elusive effect would appear there before him over the river and he would search, he told the Duc de Trevise, “feverishly,” among the leaning paintings for one that matched the effect.  In the end, he would “choose one of them that didn’t differ too much from what I saw,” and then, “despite everything, I altered it completely.  When my work was finished, I would notice, in moving among my canvases that I had overlooked precisely the one that would have suited me best and which I had at hand.  How stupid!” (5)

His friends and his wife became familiar with the anxious state of waiting for a longed-for effect to return.  And then, these effects, even the sun itself, moved with time, and might well appear in a different part of the sky.  “Around 4 o’clock,” he wrote in a letter, “the sun finally showed itself from time to time and I was thrilled for the motifs at the hospital, but there I was completely disappointed; a few days without seeing it, the sun, and it appears a kilometer from my motif; there is no longer any hope on that front, and I’m really distressed about it!  It would have been so beautiful to do!” (6)

He hurled himself into work, faulting himself for only having the energy to work eleven hours at a stretch.  He took his canvases home to the Savoy and studied them until he went to sleep.  One couldn’t be an artist, he told an interviewer later, “if one doesn’t have his painting in his head before executing.” (7)

This interview was quoted by Gustave Geffroy in his book about Monet and his work, published in 1922.  Geffroy had himself been to see Monet working in London in February of 1900; he had arrived with Monet’s old friend Georges Clemenceau; they found Monet at work on the balcony:

From time to time, he stopped.  “The sun isn’t there any longer,” he would say….All of a sudden Claude Monet would seize his palette and brushes.  “The sun has come back,” he said.  He was at that moment the only one to know it.  

The others on the balcony looked intently for the change Monet had seen, but could not find it.

We still only saw an expanse of woolly gray, some confused forms, the bridges as if suspended in the void, smoke that quickly disappeared, and some swelling waves of the Thames, visible close to the bank. We applied ourselves to see better, to penetrate this mystery, and, indeed, we ended up by distinguishing we didn’t know what mysterious and distant gleam, which seemed to be trying to penetrate this immobile world.  Little by little, things were illuminated with a gleam, and it was delicious to see, feebly illuminated by an invisible sun, like an ancient star, this grandiose landscape that then delivered its secrets.  (8)  


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(1) Guy de Maupassant, La vie d’un paysagiste, Le Gil Blas, Sept 28, 1886, quoted in Rewald, p517.

(2) Monet’s letters are designated by the numbers given them in Daniel Wildenstein’s catalog raisonné, this one is w.1532]

(3) Quotes from René Gimpel are from Diary of a Picture Dealer, p73 and p129, quoted in Monet in London, exhibition at the High Museum of Art, text by Grace Seiberling, p55. Letter to Alice of 1901 is w. 1593, quoted in Seiberling, p58.

(4) E. Bullet, “MacMonnies, the sculptor, working hard as a painter,” The Eagle (Brooklyn) 8 September 1901, quoted in Seiberling, p62.

(5) Charteris, John Singer Sargent, p126, and Duc de Trévise, “Le Pélerinage de Giverny,” Revue de l’art ancient et modern 51 (1927), quoted in Seiberling, pp68-69.

(6) 24 March, 1900, w. 1537, quoted in Seiberling, p59.

(7) Interview with Marcel Pays, Excelsior, 26 January 1921, quoted Seiberling, p70.

(8) Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, 1922, quoted Seiberling, p64-65.

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1901


In a book on Monet’s series paintings of London (between 1900 and 1904 he made almost a hundred paintings of three subjects: the Waterloo Bridge, the Charing Cross Bridge, the Houses of Parliament) I read this cursory paragraph:  

The successful portrait painter Sargent, who urged Monet to show in London in the early 1890s, may have encouraged the artist’s professional interest in London.  He was very much in evidence when Monet was in London and assisted him in making arrangements, dined with him, and provided social contacts – some of whom may have been intended as potential patrons. [1]  

They had known each other some time, apparently, and Sargent was good at, and generous about, practical arrangements.  

In a letter from Pissarro to his son Lucien written in 1891, “What you say about Sargent doesn’t surprise me; Monet had told me that he is very kind.”  Monet, though, seems to have had more feeling for Sargent as a compatriot painter than Pissarro did.  In the letter, Pissarro continued, “As for his painting, that, of course, we can’t approve of; he is not an enthusiast, but rather an adroit performer, and it was not for his painting that Mirbeau [the novelist and critic] wanted you to meet him. He is a man who can be very useful…” [2]

There he is -- Sargent -- darting about in the background of Monet's life.  Encouraging, facilitating.  Both men were extremely rigorous, both worked incessantly, both were fastidious in their artistic ideas and tastes.  What did they mean to each other?  




[1] Grace Seiberling, Monet in London, High Museum of Art, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1988, p36.
[2] Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited John Rewald and Lucien Pissarro, Da Capo, New York: 1995, letter of October 6, 1891, p183.

Feeling the Air, I

Feeling the Air I

Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, 1904

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who are not that interested in painting. They say, reasonably, that in museums they are overwhelmed by the profusion, or that only really contemporary painting is strange enough to compel their attention, or that in front of paintings long and loudly admired their eyes feel veiled by expectations and history.  

It feels odd to say in the face of these large and genuine concerns that when I am at a museum I am often merely after a small, fine sensation.  The movement of light and air.  That’s all.  I know this feeling is of a family of quite ordinary feelings – on a good day one may have something like it walking to the grocery store.  But, though common in life, it is rare in art.  In very great literature, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” But not, for example, in photography.  It might be almost a definition of what distinguishes painting from photography that one does not feel the movement of the air in looking at photographs.  Even in front of Ansel Adams, what one feels is majesty, not air.  But in front of a painting the movement of light and air have held someone else’s attention in a way that lets me feel it and at the same time know myself to be feeling it.

The presence of the Sargent watercolors in Boston this season has focused my attention on how it is that painters offer this sensation to us.  Why, looking at Sargent’s quick-stroked boats along the edge of a Venetian canal do I suddenly feel the soft air?

My guess is that this sensation is one of the aspects of seeing paintings in person that cannot be rendered in iphone details, but I’m going to try to illustrate what seem to me to be two sides of the answer.

It seems first of all to have to do with things jostling and overlapping. The two gondolas to the right here are at rest, but must be bumping each other.  The figures standing on the stone are, in action, distinct but are shown overlapped by the long greenish boom of a boat, and the figures themselves and their shadows bleed into one another.

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Boats, water, Venice, all ideal for this because it is not in any of their natures to be still.

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We know the light reflected on the underside of the bridge to be dancing, as are the waves given in motion below.  Jostling, overlapping, playing over, this gives the sense of motion, permeability, change, within the picture.


On the other side, the angle and motion of the viewer are also significant.  Look at these two shots, almost identical of Portuguese Boats.  I think that the sense of motion comes across better in the photo to the left, taken at a slightly stronger angle, then in the flatter front-on one to the right, in any case, shifting rapidly between the two may give something of the sensation.

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The shift makes a small suggestion of how one sees the picture as one is oneself in motion.  Of course when you see a painting in person you cannot help but move in front of it, if only to walk up to it.  The spatial experience of a photograph changes much less as you move around in relation to it.  I suppose because of the fixed position of the camera.  The painter is constantly moving around in relation to her canvas and constantly changing the perspective.  It must be the sense that space is changing around you that you have when you walk to the grocery store.    

Open to the Public

Open to the Public

Sargent, I Gesuati, about 1909, iphone detail

Last Friday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I had a notion of looking for her Sargents, to keep company with the sense of the artist developing in my mind because of the watercolor show at the MFA.  On entering the Gardner I must have half-noticed a small poster with a Venetian-looking Sargent on it, but this didn’t entirely register. I went first to the new wing to look at the Sophie Calle show Last Seen, about the great theft of pictures from the Gardner in 1990.  

This show I liked very much.  Simple, a photograph of a person standing in front of an empty frame, next to it, in the same size and shape as the frame, a series of short quotations from different people about the missing work. Some from interviews done at the time of the theft, a more recent group done now, about the empty spaces twenty-three years on. The show had a kind of intimacy with the paintings, especially in those quotations about the missing pictures that clearly came from the guards. One, speaking of a little Rembrandt self-portrait etching, a piece that had been stolen before, said that she (or he) always felt a little extra protective of that one, “I would just give it a little look as I went by.”  

I went down the bright Renzo Piano stairs and into the dim museum Gardner designed herself to look for the Sargents.  In the first of the small dark rooms containing the flotsam and jetsam of sketches done by Gardner’s acquaintances lowers one great brooding Manet of his mother. In the second little room, there should have been the Sargent watercolor of Gardner wrapped in white, the last portrait of her before she died.  

I asked the guard about the sketch’s whereabouts.  He was large, friendly, Russian, too friendly, he had already accosted me about a daub with orange flowers, and made me guess who had drawn an awkward sketch of a dancer.  I said had the portrait gone to the MFA show, though I knew that was unlikely since the Gardner cannot lend or borrow. No, he said grandly, “it is in our show.” A little group, in the space beyond Mme Manet.  

Eight, and the four on the left wall of Venice, and each of those four as good as the best on display across the Fens. Brilliant, improvisatory, dedicated, and, as I looked, a sudden lift, each one in turn seemed to give the air and moisture of Venice, I was in the city, felt it.  

I had been careful at the MFA, but it was always so crowded in the first room of the watercolors of Venice that in the end I hadn’t needed the protection. They were just beautiful quick images, I didn’t have to think of our trip to Venice earlier this year and of scattering my father’s ashes there as he had asked. At the MFA I had noticed, admired, walked on.    

But here at the Gardner, suddenly, taken by surprise, there is was, Venice.  And then I longed to be there, and to think of my Dad. I would try to take down what Sargent had done to transport in this way.  No photographs in the Gardner, of course, so I thought I would sketch his sketches.  

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I had just done the first, boats riding at anchor with the great church behind when another guard interrupted me. “I’m sorry, miss, no pen is allowed,” and he proffered a dull pencil, bitten or broken in half.  “I forgot,” I said pleasantly, and, still determined, set to work to do the others in pencil. Of course it was much less fluid, and without ink couldn’t approximate the vivid feeling of looking, but I got some of the shadows. Another guard had come in and begun to talk in a loud voice to the one who had given me the pencil.  I was midway through the third image, of a low bridge over the water, when it became impossible to pretend that my concentration had not been destroyed by his insistent story, about a man who had deliberately put his face too near the crotch of a boy, and the boy’s reaction. I glared to little effect, finished my sketches for form’s sake, and tried to return the pencil on departing, “you may keep it,” the guard said magnanimously….

I went up to the top floor, to see Sargent’s full-length oil portrait of Mrs. Gardner. It was her fault, anyway, all of these ridiculous regulations, no photos, no pen, even sketching made almost impossible, these hovering, intrusive guards. I’ve liked the stories of the early days of her museum, how shocked she was by souvenir hunters (and it’s true one lady did take our her scissors and try to take home a swatch of tapestry) and by teachers lecturing students, and by, worst of all, reporters, and how difficult she made it for the public to attend the museum that she intended to offer to that same public. So difficult that in the end she was charged all the back taxes she had avoided by claiming that her art imports were for the public good. This was all amusing enough, I thought to myself, mounting the staircases, but even a century later the place was still uncertain about just how open to the public it intended to be.  

She presides in Sargent’s portrait, and there is a glad welcome in the figure – “you’ve come, you’ve come all the way up,” she says, and is pleased. What if they’d taken that picture? I thought I would go down again, and try to see the Venice my Dad loved and had left himself to.  

There was no one in the little alcove when I entered.  I had stood for a few seconds, thought I detected the first slight trembling, and through the door barreled the large Russian guard, waving his arms.  As he came up to me, much too close, I said, frigidly, “I really would like to look at these pictures by myself, please.”  He sealed up his mouth but waved energetically behind me.  Yes, I said, I had seen the one of Mrs. Gardner.  He nodded and walked away. Of course that finished it. Had I been rude, probably I had been rude. The openness I had to the pictures was gone. I went and found the man, thanked him again for his help; he hardly nodded.  

I left the Gardner.  

And went across to the MFA, and went down to see the Sargents.  No one advised me, no one interrupted me, no one cared how I looked at the watercolors. One of which was almost an identical view of I Gesuati that had seemed so evanescent at Mrs. Gardner’s.  I can reproduce it here:  

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The pale yellow wash of the façade, the beautiful dark blue and gray details. But the one at Mrs. Gardner’s, without passersby, with a more steep angle of the water and stone wall, was undeniably more dramatic, more empty. I had thought of my father, walking there.  

How do the dead come and go in the places to which they have left themselves?  

Sophie Calle had asked a medium to come and look at the empty frames in the Gardner.  The medium had felt joy, felt that the spirit of the paintings was now diffused through the whole museum, and that the frames were open to possibility as they hadn’t been when they contained the paintings themselves.  

I do not know how long it takes to come to the point where we do not wish our dead back on the actual earth with the air playing over their living faces, but I am not there yet. I want the paintings back.              

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Watercolor: Translucence and Resolution

Watercolor Translucence and Resolution

Sargent, "Lights and Shadows," 1909, iphone detail.


On Tuesday the baby and I saw the John Singer Sargent watercolors now up at the MFA.  The baby saw much to please her.  In addition to the particularly nice low cushioned gray benches, she liked best the room labeled “watercraft,” and in particular this image of boats, also my favorite:

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We seemed both drawn to it simultaneously, though how much each might have anticipated the other’s preference is hard to determine.  She could see immediately that it was boats and then called out the colors – first, her favorite, “orange!” and then, another color she particularly likes, and one pronounced in the picture, “green.”

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In the last six months or so, watching the baby learn to name her surroundings, I’ve found again and differently how much of the pleasure of looking is naming.  To know what a thing is called is to see it with a distinctness that, nameless, it lacks.  One pleasure of Impressionism is of making out what’s there – that is a face, a hat, a shadow, a boat upon the water, a reflection.  The Impressionist styles of painting slow down the eye’s recognition enough that you can feel, again, the early pleasure of coming-to-know-what’s-there.  

This is also a pleasure of Sargent’s work. Though he was not an Impressionist, he developed just a little later and responded to some of the same influences.  Many of the watercolors that are part of the exhibition are from the latter half of his career.  Watercolor is a great late medium: translucent, indelible, it requires judgment and assurance from its maker.  

A mature form for artists, it is also a late form for lookers – requiring subtleties of discernment and resolution.  The more experience you’ve had looking at the world, the more astonished you feel to recognize the effects of diaphanous atmosphere in the watercolor.  (Translucent is even one of the names for the kind of paint, the exhibition’s wall text lists both translucent and opaque watercolor.)      

I had no idea if the baby would be able to see things in this medium – they require much more advanced powers of resolution than what she grasped a couple of months ago when we last went to look together.  But, in the last room, labeled, I think, “light on stone,” when I said I wanted to look at this white house, she seemed pleased

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and when I carried her over to it, she said, of her own accord, “clouds!”  That’s right, I said.  I took out the phone and she wanted to look at the picture of herself with a cat that she knows is on it, but when I said that I wanted to take a picture of the green door she approved and her tone suggested to me that she saw both the object and the way that taking a picture of it was like naming it, an act of recognition: “Door!”  

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[First two images iphone details of "Portuguese Boats," 1903, last four images iphone details of "Lights and Shadows," 1909.]