Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exuberant Abstraction

The great American expat painter John Singer Sargent officially closed his portrait studio in 1907. He'd worked hard to become the most sought-after portrait painter for the United States elite, and he was now a wealthy man who could do as he pleased.

A few months later, he was in paradise: living in warmth and leisure on the tiny unspoiled Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea.

His pent-up energy for the life and forms of nature expressed itself in rich, expressive studies of the life among the island's ancient terraced hills and sunny, spice-scented grottos.

The paintings work so well, I think, because of their underlying abstract designs. But the brushwork too veers toward abstraction. In his on-location plein-air studies, his brush was most vigorous and unguarded. His quickened sense of freedom and the brilliant, thriving pulse of natural life led to an expression of unfettered informality not present in his salon pictures or his formal portraits.

Pomegranates, Majorca (1908)

In Pomegranates, Majorca (1908), Sargent celebrates the explosion of gleaming leaves and ripe fruit glowing against the deeper shades of the tree limbs and moist sandy soil. I think he chose the palette for these studies to match at once the earthiness and the airy sea-light of the island.

The painting below, Valdemosa, Marjorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (c. 1908) hangs with masterpieces of American landscape painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In person, it struck me as possessing an ecstatic energy such as one finds in the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock.

John Singer Sargent, Veldemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (1908)

Here's what great painters do: Sargent doesn't just paint the sandy roots and loping branches - he paints an abstract design that expresses an abiding quality - the natural wildness and energy he sensed in it.

In this close-up you can see that the surface of the painting has more than just the "unfinished" sketch-like quality of an Impressionist painting. Rather, he uses every brushstroke expressively. Each stroke contributes a line or a mass that nominally delineates a branch, a leaf, or a root but primarily contributes to the overall feeling he wants to express.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Veldemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside (1908)

Nor is this just loose painting. These lines are intentionally energetic. Sargent becomes a conduit for the haphazard energy inherent in natural design. Jackson Pollock was the painter who took this method to its logical conclusion, thus contributing an entirely new page to the history of painting.

Here's a comparison. On the right is a detail from Sargent's Majorca painting. On the left is a detail from Pollock's Lavender Mist, also in the National Gallery.

Besides the density of the web of lines, the real main difference, as I see it, is that while Sargent used the forms and colors of nature as his springboard, Pollock just dispensed with the representational role of painting completely in order to maximize the expressive qualities of the medium itself. "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them," he said in 1947.

Standing in front of either painting is an electrifying experience: both artists shock us with the sheer exuberance one can wring from paint on canvas.


  1. How delightful to see your juxtaposition of Sargent to Pollock. As a young artist I scratched my head in bewilderment over Pollock's work until 1969 , or there abouts, I saw a show of his at the Guggenheim. I will not forget how his work invoked such veracity of feeling. Thanks for the post!

  2. Jan - I think the reason so many people still don't get Pollock is exactly as you say - you have to see the paintings in person. Partly it's about the sheer scale of them and partly it's about their surfaces - you need to confront the things face to face. What an incredible experience that Guggenheim show must have been!

  3. Very interesting post Christopher I know Sargent's work well having seen it in the galleries here in Britain. There is a real freshness in his portrait work even though of course the poses are quite formal. It is a happy story to think of him being free finally to discover nature and paint as he wished to with great spontaneous brushwork.