Friday, December 14, 2012

Sargent in Phoenix

I went to the Phoenix Art Museum on Wednesday to take some pictures of a John Singer Sargent portrait.

A story is told of a journalist who made arrangements to come and observe Sargent paint. The journalist came and sat to watch what he thought would be a flurry of flailing brushes and paint. Instead, Sargent would look carefully, mix up a color on his brush, raise it to the canvas and hold it there for a few moments without making the stroke. He would do this a few times and then finally lay on a beautiful stroke. The journalist thought Sargent was teasing him, until he realized: that's how careful Sargent was to get the right color, value and intensity in each stroke. That's what I like in this painting, the beautiful transitions of tone that portray the light falling over the form-without obscuring the brush strokes! No smoothing out. Each stroke is perfectly modulated in it's value and hue creating the beauty of form plus the beauty of one stroke of color against another stroke of color. 

Jean-Leon Gerome. When I was in college, he was held in derision as a promulgator of the stiff academic tradition of the French Academy which opposed the Impressionists. Regardless of what one thinks now, this painting shows tremendous skill in composition, values and story telling.

Finally, a painting by Walter Ufer, one of the early Taos Artists. Ufer's paintings intrigue me because of the luminosity in the form shadows. He puts so much reflected light into them that they often become as light in value as some of the areas that are illuminated by the initial light source. That is usually considered a bad thing but he pulls it of by controlling all the other values and changes of hue. As a result, there is an interplay of figure/ground that doesn't often happen in figurative/realist work. The B/W version below makes this even more apparent. Notice the masterful arrangement of values. In some areas, the figures are lighter than the surrounding shapes, darker in others and same value in still others. (James Gurney calls this the Windmill Principle and gives a good explanation.}

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