Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Massachusetts

 

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Carolus-Duran, 1879

Oil on canvas, 46 x 37 13/16 in. Signed, dated, and inscribed upper right: A MON CHER MAITRE M. CAROLUS-DURAN, SON ELEVE AFFECTIONNE [to my dear master Monsieur Carolus-Duran, his devoted student]/John S. Sargent. 1879

 

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence, where his family remained until 1874. Following a childhood interest in drawing, he began his formal art education in Rome in 1869 and continued in Florence at the Accademia di Belie Arti from 1873 to 1874. In May of that year, Sargent's family moved to Paris so that he could receive advanced training. He was quickly accepted into the studio of Carolus-Duran (born Charles-Emile-Auguste Durant, 1838-1917) and soon became one of the master's star pupils.

Sargent was drawn to the studio of Carolus-Duran by its pleasant atmosphere, its international nature with many foreign students, its flexibility when compared with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and especially Carolus-Duran's success and popularity. Trained at the Academie Suisse, Carolus-Duran had also studied in Italy and Spain. A portrait of his wife, admitted to the Paris Salon of 1869, launched his career as one of the preeminent portraitists of Paris. He opened his studio in 1873, and, while his career declined through the 1880s, his importance in the art world increased. In 1889 he was a founding member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and its president in 1898. He was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1872 and was made a grand officer in 1900. In 1905 he became director of the French Academy in Rome.

In his studio Carolus-Duran did not follow the curriculum of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which stressed drawing as the foundation of good art. He taught that painting was of supreme importance. The Portrait of Carolus-Duran sums up all that Sargent learned from him: the informality of the portrait; the combination of elegance and realism; the contrast between the highlighted face and hands and the thinly painted dark background, and their contrast as well with the freely painted torso. These elements all combine to make this youthful work a masterful balance between psychological depth and bravura technique. The lessons that Sargent had learned and combined so successfully at the age of twenty-three, based on direct observation and the economical use of paint, would serve him throughout his career.

John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris, 1880

Oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 35 11/16 in. Signed and inscribed lower right: JOHN S. SARGENT TANGER; pentimento of signature and inscription lower center: John S. Sargent Tanger

 

Smoke of Ambergris was the product of John Singer Sargent's trip to North Africa in the winter of 1879-80. One of two paintings that he sent to the Paris Salon of 1880, it is his own interpretation of orientalism, a common theme at that time in which artists sought out exotic subjects. The painting depicts a heavily draped woman inhaling the smoke of ambergris--a resinous substance found in tropical seawater and believed to come from whales. It was thought in the Near East to he an aphrodisiac, as well as a safeguard from evil spirits. The model, of whom Sargent made several sketches, probably lived in cosmopolitan Tangier. In a society that forced women to be intensely private, working as a model would have relegated her to its outer fringes. Her robes and mantle are of a type worn by both men and women throughout North Africa, but the details of the costume and setting come from different regions and social classes. The painting is a melange of Moroccan objects and customs that Sargent encountered in Tangier and Tetouan. Therefore, the scene must be viewed as an imaginary one.

The masterfully seductive use of color in Smoke of Ambergris probably attracted the greatest praise. In an article on Sargent in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, October 1887, Henry James wrote, "I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; but in her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable. The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminated tones." On June 9, 1880, an unidentified critic in the Interchange referred To Sargent's Smoke of Ambergris as, quite simply, "a perfect piece of painting."

John Singer Sargent, A Street in Venice, 1880 or 1882

Oil on canvas, 29 9/16 x 20 5/8 in. Signed and inscribed lower right: John S. Sargent/Venise

 

Venice was a popular destination for artists of all nationalities in the late nineteenth century because of its picturesque canals and grand architecture, the colorful crowds, and the special quality of its light--limpid and sparkling. John Singer Sargent made two trips to the once-powerful city at the head of the Adriatic Sea, in 1880 and 1882. Rejecting the traditional views, he chose his subjects from the lower classes seen in the alleyways that criss- cross the city and depicted them in mundane tasks or, as in this case, in ambiguous relationships.

The setting for this painting was probably somewhere behind the Church of Santi Apostoli not far from the famous Ca' d'Oro. Sargent manipulated the scene to emphasize its ambiguity and tension. The murky shadows, the high walls that seem to be closing in, the dramatic perspective lines leading to the narrow slit of sunlight in the distance, all contribute to the mystery and menace of the scene. The palette is nearly monochromatic barely heightened by the splash of coral color on the woman's dress. Above all, this encounter outside a wine shop has an almost uncomfortable air of immediacy in the agitated stance of the man and the direct gaze of the woman.

In this painting, Sargent owes a debt to both old and new sources of inspiration. Like many of his contemporaries, including Mary Cassatt, he admired the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velazquez. Sargent incorporated into his work lessons learned from the earlier painter, particularly the organization of complex spaces and the use of rich, dark colors. But it was on photography--the souvenir photographs available throughout Venice by the 1880s-that Sargent based much of the composition of A Street in Venice. The painting seems almost like a snapshot in the frozen action, the distorted perspective, and the slight blurring of focus in the distance.

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