John Singer Sargent (1886 - 1925) is best known for his portraits and his subtle compositions. Madame X (1884) is his most famous portrait, and has enough drama and history behind it to have been the subject of a book, Strapless by Deborah Davis. I’m not going to outline Sargent’s curious expatriate life here, so if you are interested and want a good read, get Strapless.
His compositional skill is best illustrated by the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886), which straddles the line between pure reality and wild abstraction. Two children are holding Japanese lanterns, but there is no horizon or ground plane, no sense of distance, and the general effect is of scattered confetti. And yet, it has a real, almost commonplace feel about it; like a childhood memory.
A third weapon (reflecting the surprising Spanish Inquisition) in Sargent’s arsenal is his brilliant brushwork. He is capable of teasing reality out of a dab of paint, creating the wonderful tension between reality and paint on canvas. The detail of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, below, shows the range of effects that Sargent’s brush covers; from the abstracted rug and dress, to the perfectly modeled face.
Alright…. That is all well and good, but what does that have to do with architectural rendering?
Well, Sargent also did brilliant paintings of buildings. He was not an architect, and seems to have had no interest in the practical business of designing and constructing the built environment. But, he was an observer and recorder of the world, whether animal, vegetable or mineral. Sargent’s viewpoint can be very useful in reminding the architect that “normal” people see things differently than architects do. Theory is all very well, but the surprising world of light, the tactile feel of materials, and the delight in color is at the center of the human experience of buildings.
I will, as usual, make short comments on the following images, relating the reason they caught my eye in the first place. By the way, paintings 1 to 6 are in oil, while the rest are watercolor.
Above are two views of the same loggia at Vila Torre Gali, but painted at different times of the day. One having a warm and hazy feel, and the other having a cooler and more focused light. It is good to be reminded that an omnipresent glow can be as dramatic and real as direct sun in the late afternoon.
Worn stone and water stains aren’t what most clients want to see, but the almost flippant way that Sargent captures this weathered building is breathtaking.
The same confident strokes define this ornate interior. Note the “telegraphic” rendition of people in the lower right corner. This composition is as close to a typical architectural rendering as you will get from Sargent; he was a master at choosing the off center, sometimes eccentric point of view.
The foreground paving in this interior view of a church reminds me that stone and tile are natural 3 dimensional materials which show wear, and whose joints can be variously lighter or darker than the paving itself.
Raking sunlight on a plastered white wall should reveal all the warm and cool variations of the color white (That’s White, Right?). In addition, this painting utilizes the brushed texture of oils to suggest the rough surface of the plaster. Although architectural renderings tend not to represent textures in this way, the fact remains that textures can be an important part of a building, and their depiction can make or break an illustration.
This painting of San Stae in Venice is a good place to start viewing Sargent’s watercolors. You can see the pencil lines at the bottom and upper right, showing how he sets the rough boundaries before playing with the paints. It also shows his (and watercolor’s normal) use of transparent layers, with blues and violets melting into tans and browns.
The three painting above are of the Library and Doge’s Palace which form two sides of the Piazzetta in Venice. There are many aspects worth noting here, such as the fine underlying drawing, and the ability to range from detail to suggestion. I am most interested here in pointing out his tight palette of Burnt Sienna and blue. Sargent was as draconian in limiting the number of colors, as he was libertine in employing them.
These views of Santa Maria della Salute (or “the Salute”) in Venice, range from studied details to impressionistic background. They also range from highly colored to subtle, and monochromatic to a warm/cool balance. If you are dealing with a stone building such as The Salute, these paintings are worth studying, in that they express the material, sculptural form and windows in a simple but completely believable way.
These monochrome studies (just a touch of blue) show how much realism can be created from a one or two color palette. Also, look closely to see the barely noticeable line layout – which, although not exact, is more than enough to support the looser brushwork.
In these three images water and a cool palette are combined. Note how often Sargent lets the blue and brown mix in a wet wash which itself suggests the theme of water.
The same theme of water is found in these 3 images, but note the addition of violet in the first view (by the steps and shadows), and green in the second view (in the foreground water). These touches create a more subtly realistic effect than Sargent’s simpler palette.
I don’t know why I included the above paintings… or rather I do, but it has nothing to do with architectural rendering. (The sheer joy of the brushwork and color made me do it) I can’t imagine trying to get away with a dissolving series of brown and blue dabs, or making them represent a recognizable temple structure, as he has done in the second image.
This watercolor of a Venetian doorway caught my eye years ago. The dark wet in wet passage of the doorway seems a throw away until you realize what a perfect foil it is for the bright water and detailed stonework. The composition is a classic cross set off center with various secondary moves to keep it from becoming static. It is topped by the bravura spiral column and window lattice. I was, and still am, choking with envy.
This painting of Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain and the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, both within the Piazza Navona in Rome, is included to show that even Sargent could be overwhelmed by Baroque architecture. You can see how he worked unsuccessfully to separate the fountain and the church, but the final effect is more confusion than satisfaction.
Bridges, bridges, bridges… Venice has ‘em, and Sargent painted ‘em. The series above gives an interesting tour of bridges as subject, background, afterthought, framing device and lighting study. The last image reminds me that I should do a post on curious effects found under bridges, and wherever water and shadows meet. I might attract “trolls” but it’ll be worth it.
These two paintings are another example of the possibilities light gives to illustrating buildings. Both are of the Scuola di San Rocco, but the first is done in a moderate morning light, while the second is taken in late afternoon, with a warmer and lower sun angle. Which version do you prefer? Which light would be best for your next job?
Four fountains. You might notice that in spite of his skill with watercolor, Sargent was not above using opaque white (or anything that gave him the effect he wanted) on several of these fountains. The first image is another painterly hat trick which seems throw away, but is perfect. The second image nails the effect of wet bronze. The third fountain is a beautiful reminder that the underside of something in direct sunlight is brightly lit by reflections from the ground. The last two images are a final set of “same place, different light” comparisons; one working the warm afternoon light, and the other suggesting a cooler mid day sun. Note in the forth image, how Sargent shifts the light on dark of the near statue, to dark on light.
This (almost) final sculpture is a nice reminder of Sargent’s talents in tackling reflected light. It shows two sculptural figures beside a path. The surfaces facing the ground glowing orange and brown, while the surfaces facing the sky are blue. Sargent exaggerates perhaps, but the result is magic, and more importantly, correct.
This (actual) final sculpture is of an escutcheon of Charles V, from a building in Spain. OK, so Sargent can speed dial with a brush, and nail an effect with the flick of the wrist. But, as shown here, he is also a patient observer of buildings. Sit down and draw a straight elevation of such ornamentation. I have, and it is not easy or quick. So… hats off to John Singer.
If you are a “hard copy” person like me, there are a number of good books out there on Sargent. My favorite is, Sargent Abroad, Figures andLandscapes by Abbeville Press. It is large format, and the reproductions are excellent. If you like digital, the best site is the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery.