Monday, October 18, 2010

Sargent: The Sumptuous Sublime

John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

What a symphony of gray and white! (Rendered, of course, in the iridescent hues of the full-color spectrum.)

In this portrait of the artist's niece, Sargent conspicuously displays his mastery of light, color, and texture. He appears to convey, in broad, seemingly offhanded brushstrokes, the precise quality of the most exotic and varied surfaces and fabrics.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

Sargent painted this purely for pleasure. He probably smirked mildly at the contrast between the resting girl and her elaborate, fluttering skirts which take up more of the couch than she does. Clearly, the various lights and shadows of the complex and contrasting silks, satins, linens, gilt marble, carpet, hair, flesh, and wall delighted him.

He nails the satin dress's opalescent sheen by painting the accents (where the light reflects most brightly) with a pairing of very light blue and pink (one cool color and one warm, that together suggest opalescence) in identical high-key values.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

The whole piece is like that - warm yellow-whites, transparent, zinging blue-greens (viridian? Prussian blue?) glancing off deeply cool lavenders, magentas and mauves. And yet the main colors read, for the most part, as various shades of white, gray, silver, and gold! The man was a magician, pure and simple.

One can see this "casual" maserpiece (approx. 25 x 30 inches) in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which has this to say about it:

Exasperated by the demands of his sitters, Sargent proclaimed portraiture to be “a pimp’s profession” and by 1907 resolved never to accept another portrait commission. During his later years, the artist devoted himself to creating decorative murals for public buildings and to painting watercolors and small canvases purely for pleasure

In 1911 Sargent vacationed with his sister’s family in Switzerland, where he painted Nonchaloir (“nonchalance”). A casual character study instead of a formal portrait, it depicts Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond Michel, whom he nicknamed “Intertwingle” because of her agile, intertwined poses. Influenced by the “art for art’s sake” movement, the painter unified the color scheme with the amber light of a lazy afternoon. The straight lines of the posh furnishings in the Swiss hotel accentuate the swift brushstrokes used to delineate his niece’s fingers, hair, cashmere shawl, and satin skirt.