John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent
Armand Cabrera

John Singer Sargent was born on the 12th of January 1856 in Florence Italy. His parents had left America to live in Europe. Because the family constantly traveled, Sargent developed few ties to any one country. He spoke four languages, played the piano and mandolin expertly, and held a great knowledge of literature and art.

Sargent enrolled in the Atelier of Carolus Duran when he was 18 years old. Duran’s approach to painting was to stress accurate values combined with free and rapid brushwork, Au Premier Coup. Sargent quickly rose to the top of his class. His bravura style and naturalist subject matter was well received by critics. Sargent painted with Monet; however, he was never an Impressionist. He was too grounded in academic training to relinquish good drawing and strong value plans for color alone.

In the beginning of his career, Sargent painted society portraits. He created a scandal when he painted a famous society woman in a risky pose with one strap of her dress fallen off her shoulder. The now famous portrait of Madame X seems tame by today’s standards of taste. At that time period, the painting caused such a stir that Sargent was forced to flee Paris for London.

As a portrait painter, Sargent had no equal. His ability to render the subtlest expressions kept him busy throughout his career. His seemingly effortless brushwork garnered him praise and criticism. Sergent’s most vocal critics claimed he had too much facility and no content in his work.

At the peak of his success in 1907, Sargent abandoned painting portraits. His interest in his mural projects and landscape paintings replaced his need for commissioned work. Sergent’s successes provided sufficient income to stick to his principles…except in a few rare occasions. Sargent’s landscape and figure paintings are a tour de force of bravura painting. His watercolors of Venetian scenes are especially fine examples of this style.

John Singer Sargent died in 1925 at the age of sixty.


John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné Project (In Four Volumes)
Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond
Yale University Press

Sargent Abroad
Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond
Yale University Press

John Singer Sargent
Carter Ratcliff
Abbeville/ Artabras

QuoteOnly after years of the contemplation of Nature can the process of selection become so sure an instinct; and a handling so spontaneous and so freed from the commonplaces is final mastery, the result of long artistic training.
~John Singer Sargent

Shapes and the Importance of Edges

by Armand Cabrera

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We all understand that a lone tree or a mountain against a clear sky creates a defining contour and shape that separates its boundaries from its background. These attributes are easy to discern and their edges are apparent no matter how soft or crisp.

Shapes and edges and the dependence on correct observation of their transitions are paramount to the success of representational paintings. It is not enough to try and make a literal transcription of what you see; the best art in my opinion comes from the design of shapes and their edges.

Let’s start with some definitions; basic shapes are quadrilateral, circle, and triangle. From these you can form any complex shape by combining their structural elements together in varying degrees. You learn to see their structure in more complex shapes and these in turn help to create the illusion of forms. You use the abstraction of them to compose your designs.

Edges play an important role with these shapes because where you see the transition of one shape to another is controlled by the edge and its quality. The concept of hard, soft or lost edges control shape. All of this is conceptual with no basis in reality, which makes it difficult when you are starting out.

When we start to paint, we talk in terms of the thing we are trying to paint as opposed to the shapes we are trying to make. This inability to conceptualize the world and abstract it holds us back as painters. In the beginning we are convinced that we are drawing or painting trees or buildings or faces when all we are making are shapes on a canvas.

Even the idea of solidity and form is based on making shapes that really only mimic form to our eyes. When working from life these shapes and edges are controlled by the angle of your view, move a little in one direction or another and how you see those abstract shapes will change. Everything we do in painting is translating a 3 dimensional scene or object into 2 dimensional shapes.

This move away from thinking in terms of the objects you see to the marks that you make , takes time. You are not only training your hand eye coordination when you are learning to paint. You are also reprogramming your brain to think in terms of shapes of color and value. Learning to see as a painter. And it takes a lifetime of practice and study.

How you see those shapes and their properties of value and color attributes; where they divide into other shapes and how well you translate them and the quality of their edges, not only decides your painting style but also determines your ability as a painter.

Paintings from top to bottom Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, John Singer Sargent, Dennis Miller Bunker, William  Bliss Baker, Peder Mork Monsted, Carl Rungius, Fantin Latour, Emile Carlsen.

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