Tuesday, April 1, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Street in Venice (John Singer Sargent)

John Singer Sargent is one of the great American heroes of art in the 19th century, and in all of western art for that matter.  Like Zorn, he has a lot of great work ranging from watercolors to oils, and was among the great portrait painters of his time.  And also like Zorn, he was greatly influenced by my favorite Old Master Velázquez.  And I can see that very clearly in their work, both in their palette of colors and their techniques. 
My favorite piece of Sargent's, and the one I am writing on today is his "Street in Venice" scene.  One of the things I love about this period of art is the way in which the realists were able to capture such naturalistic colors in their work.  We saw that with Zorn's "Summer Vacation" and we can see it here with Sargent's "Street in Venice."  And yet, painters like Sargent would often employ a bit of an impressionistic style in their brushwork so that there was no mistaking it for photography.  On a side note, for those of you who are not artists, but like to compliment artists by saying things like, "It looks like a photograph!"... Well, we don't like it.  We're trying to create something better than a photograph.  We are trying to imitate life.  And in the case of Sargent, he was a master of it.  We appreciate the sentiment very much, but our work strives to be higher than the almighty photo. 
And certainly what we see with Sargent's work is indeed higher than photography.  It was realism.  And in the case of this painting, it was realism that photography cannot capture.  There is depth and atmosphere.  There is real texture in the paint that is imitating life. 
One thing I love about this painting is that I have seen photos taken by friends who went to Venice standing in narrow alleyways just like this one, and so I know just how wonderfully Sargent has captured that environment.  And I'm sure my friends who have been to Venice would say the same.  And getting back to the influence of Velázquez, we can see Sargent's mastery of the alla prima technique in this piece.  In the same way that Velázquez used his brush, Sargent appears to have been very spontaneous and loose with his technique.  And that is partly true.  It is that way, but make no mistake that Sargent, as Velázquez, knew exactly what they were doing, and were very intentional about what color was going to go where, and how it was going to be applied.  In no way was Sargent haphazardly dipping his brush everywhere on his palette and just seeing what would happen.  Everything was intentional.  It was planned out.  As with alla prima, sometimes it is planned out in the moment, but it is still planned.  But part of alla prima painting is also letting the paint do its thing as well, which is what makes it so fun, and why alla prima paintings such as this are so fun to look at.  The evidence of the brushwork is still visible and has not been blended away, so we are able to get a glimpse into the technique of the artist.  The movement of his hand, and the pure colors on his palette can be visualized and discovered.

A Street in Venice
oil on canvas

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