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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.  




Morisot in Paris

Morisot in Paris

Morisot, Self-Portrait, c1885, Musée Marmottan

At the Musée Marmottan last week a chance to really see Morisot: a whole room of the paintings; a smaller room with fifteen watercolors and a selection of works she owned; drawings by the artist and by members of her family; and a special exhibition of paintings from private collections that contained several further canvases.

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[Edouard Manet at the Isle of Wight, c1875]
       
Struck, afresh, by the strange quality of paint as she used it. Very thick, the strokes seeming to hang almost like banners in the air, sometimes gauzier as curtains, but sometimes veritable stripes, and yet the works are of great transparency, luminous and fresh, the air always dewy, a light breeze stirring.

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[La Fable, c1883, currently on display in Impressionism Privé at the Marmottan]


Some of this she worked out from Corot, one of her early teachers and a good friend, whose thick greens also manage to be ever-light and full of air.  Some of the weight she had from Manet, the painter she probably worked in closest conjunction with, a lifelong companion in art, and in family life, since she was married to his brother.  But where Manet is deliberately opaque, Morisot is spacious, and a peculiar kind of space, as if interior to the paint itself.  The text at the Marmottan acclaims her, in my view rightly, one of the great watercolorists of her day, and suggests that her practice in watercolor influenced her objectives in paint.  This seems plausible but does not really begin to answer the question: how?

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Turner before Monet

Turner before Monet

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
16 October 1834, painted 1835.


In Cleveland for the holidays, M. and I walked through the galleries of the art museum, and stumbled upon Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834.

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If I’d seen it before, I’d entirely forgotten.  A painting of great power and intricacy.

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Turner one of those rare colorists who seems, to me, to have control within the color – especially here of red that really burns at the heart of the painting and of the expanding cloud of yellow and white.

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The color has shape and density, symmetry and modulation.  It is not so much that the painting seems to have a geometry as that the color, within itself, does.

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Monet knew Turner’s paintings and his admiration for them was part of his decision to go to London to do his three late series.  One would like to be sure that he had had adequate time with this particular picture, which seems to have a project related in an important way to his own.  Monet set the Houses of Parliament, the Thames before them, and the air above them in such a way that each could be transmuted into the others.  Turner and those with him along the banks of the Thames that night saw this happen.

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The night of the great fire, October 16, 1834, Turner worked all night, up and down the banks of the Thames sketching rapidly in watercolor, which was his habit.  One of these sketches is reproduced in a beautiful called Turner: Les Carnets de Dessins with text by William Gaunt.  Turner’s watercolors, the most wonderful I have ever seen, were his private work, and were not brought before the public until well into the 20th century.  Thus Monet, hurrying up and down the sides of the Thames desperate to catch his evanescent effects, never knew how close a ghostly colleague he had.


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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.]

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