one. On Friday, 26 May 1874, John and his father went to Carolus-Duran’s studio in the Boulevard Mont Parnasse. When they arrived, Carolus-Duran was making his rounds, criticising his students’ work. He then turned to assess the new candidate’s work. The studies were shown one after another, the landscape pencil sketches, museum copywork, and the watercolours: it was a prodigious display.Carolus-Duran said, “You have studied much”, and then with the caution which made ‘not too bad’ the highest praise lavished on a student’s work, he added “Much that you have learned you must forget”.
The students gathered round: “We were astonished”, one of them remembered, “at the cleverness shown in watercolour and pencil work, and his debut was considered a most promising one”. Carolus accepted John as pupil there and then.
Sketch two. Once in Italy (1906 or 1907), after some administrative eccentricity at a rural railway station, the entire pry watched their train leave without them. They had a two-hour wait for the next in excruciating heat. “We sat very cross all round the waiting room,” Miss Eliza Wedgwood (one of John’s closest friends) remembered, “but John, true philosopher that he was, sat down outside and painted one of the loveliest of all his six great white oxen with blue shadows.”
“Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that it is to be seen,” he instructed his students at the Academy Schools, and that is precisely precisely what he was doing himself, with the added energy of acting against the portraits.
From the early part of the century he expressed himself in an ever-increasing torrent of pictures — of doorways, cattle, brilliant skies, the von Glehns painting, his nieces turning into rock formations lying on the grass or by a brook in Purtud, Padre Sebastiano who was keener on botany than God studying wild flowers in his room, a hermit in the Val d’Aosta who took on the camouflage of the dense undergrowth, his hotel room with his luggage littering the floor, stonemasons dragging marble from the quarries at Carrara, Venetian scenes from his floating studio.
The investigations into perspective, technique and light were gone. The specific research for the murals was gone. He was amassing a library of souvenirs, postcards, which were augmented by photography. He worked at terrific speed, both in oils and in watercolour, his dates imprecise, often because they were added later. He was after quick impressions.
Watercolour was ideal for his purposes, depending on speed and conveniently portable, and though he was not new to the medium he began to use it increasingly from around the turn of the century. For Sargent, watercolour suited his shorthand. In 1892 he contributed a preface to the catalogue of works by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821–1905), whose ” ‘amateur efforts’ ” – Brabazon’s words – Sargent found ”wondertul … original and finished works of art which the world ought to know about” and arranged an exhibition shortly after first seeing the paintings.
His words about Brabazon speak of his own attraction (to watercolour):“The gift of colour together with an exquisite sensitiveness to impressions of nature has here been the constant incentive, and the immunity from “picture” making has gone far to keep perception delicate and execution convincing … Immediate sensations flower again in Mr Brabazon’s drawings, with a swiftness that make one for a time forget that there has been a medium. Those who look principally for suggestions of nature in pictures will be grateful ….”
Watercolour afforded Sargent the means to refine and simplify his vocabulary. He was able to explore immediate responses, free of detaied analysis. Watercolour gave him a splendid modification of his technique, thus enabling him to capture white oxen in the blazing Italian sun while waiting for a train. And watercolours also became his favourite gifts. He doled them out for wedding presents, birthdays, Christmas and a general expression of greeting. They were, in many ways, his style of postcard.
Adapted from John Singer Sargent, His Portrait, by Stanley Olson
— Zvonimir Tosic