In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, three modern masters evolved traditional oil painting outside Impressionism: Joaquín Sorolla in Spain, Anders Zorn in Sweden, and the American John Singer Sargent in Britain. I originally intended to consider how each of them tackled the depiction of clothing and textiles in just one article. Finding that impossible, this considers only Sargent.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was as multinational as Rubens. Trained under Carolus-Duran in Paris, where he started his career as the brilliant portraitist of the day, he was driven to London by the scandal that erupted over his sensual painting of Madame Pierre Gautreau when it was exhibited at the Salon.
At heart, Sargent embraced Impressionist style in the 1880s, as shown in his virtuoso Gust of Wind from about 1886-7, which could so easily have come from Monet’s easel a decade earlier. He makes no attempt to show textures or even folds, but sketches in the rough forms of his model’s billowing dress.
Just a year or two later, in a different context, his brushwork remains loose, but this time provides sufficient clues for the folds and an impression of the fabric itself.
His more formal style at this time is well-illustrated by his two portraits of the Spanish dancer La Carmencita.
In 1890, Sargent opted for a static pose, with her hands at her hips, driving her bust out and her chin high, in assertive pride. Decorative embroidery on her dress is sketched in more carefully.
Fifteen years later, a decade after her dancing career went into decline, Sargent produced a completely different portrait in which his virtuoso brushstrokes capture her motion. His inspiration was no longer Manet, but the swish of Giovanni Boldini, with the movement of the fabric rather than its form.
More formal portraits, such as this of The Acheson Sisters, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902, were still painterly in clothing, but he took a little longer to ensure the sitters’ investment in those clothes was rewarded in his painting.
In 1907, Sargent officially closed the doors of his portrait studio, packed his watercolours and pochade, and went painting as he wanted to, across Europe and in the USA. His earlier watercolour sketches had already shown him to be a different artist; now the real John Singer Sargent painted without constraint.
This portrait of an Arab Woman from 1905-06 is a fine example of his sketchy style in watercolour, the direct descendant of his Gust of Wind above, this time using advanced watercolour techniques.
The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy from 1907 is its equivalent in oils.
Sargent’s most radical watercolours were painted when he stayed with various friends in the Bellevue Hotel, at the top of the Simplon Pass, in the summers before the First World War. While his family and friends whiled away their days in leisure, Sargent got them to pose for a unique series of informal portraits. They may have been reclining at leisure, but Sargent took those watercolours very seriously, and deployed an amazing array of techniques. Among the finest is his Simplon Pass: The Tease from the summer of 1911.
One of his most unusual techniques, extensively used here, is wax resist. Before applying paint, Sargent scribbled over areas intended to be vegetation, using a soft wax crayon, probably made from beeswax. On fairly rough paper, the wax is deposited quite unevenly, and when painted over using watercolour it shows the white paper through. This creates disruptive patterns of near-white in the midst of the greens, and a superb effect.
Most of the paint used is transparent watercolour, applied as a wash in small areas, and in highly gestural marks elsewhere. In the upper third of this detail, he has applied white gouache (opaque watercolour) sufficiently thickly for it to now have fine cracks. The large pale blue area crossing the middle appears to have been rewetted and some of its colour lifted to reduce its intensity, although most applications of paint over existing paint have been made wet on dry.
Only the faces have been painted conventionally. The illusion of their voluminous clothing, its folds and patterns, exists only in the mind of the viewer. Sargent’s painting has transcended reality.