Friday, January 9, 2009

Sargent: Glowing Greys

John Singer Sargent,
An Artist in His Studio,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

I could never go to the MFA in Boston without stopping to see this painting, even if only briefly. There is such a sense of place in this painting that I feel as if you can see the very air. How does Sargent do it? I think he does it by being true to the consistency of the light. The viewer 's eye is convinced that everything in the painting is lit by the same light - not an easy thing to do.

The light in the painting is reminiscent of the light in Impressionist paintings, but without the broken color. Sargent manages to produce that same Impressionist-style luminosity while still using values to model the forms in the painting, something that was little done in pure Impressionism. Look at those colors! And then note that this painting, stunning in its luminosity, is almost completely grey! Warm greys, cool greys, dark greys, pale greys. Even those glowing whites in the drape or sheet on the bed are mostly grey, with a few white highlights. On the left side of the painting, the light source side, the greys are darker and warmer, first because of the local color of the man's clothes being darker, but secondly (or firstly in another important sense) because this helps make the color in the painting work. The colors in light are warm, the shadows cooler, but still retaining some warmth. On the right side of the painting, the objects farther from the light source have very cool shadows, with barely warm lights and highlights. It's fascinating, too, that the objects in the painting closest to the light source are the darkest elements, while the brightest, most luminous are the objects farthest from the light source. Small subtleties show up too as you look at this painting: note the thin patch of pale blue on the seat of the artist's chair. I'm sure that Sargent put that there simply because his eye told him the painting needed it. It's gorgeous!

So what does this say about what I love in a painting? The painting's ability to draw me in, to make me feel as if I am in this place, and the artist's skill in making that happen. Even in this unimportant scene as subject, I can tell that Sargent fell in love with painting it, and he allows me to share that feeling.

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