Today is the birthday of one of my favorite artists, the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Regular readers will recall that my very first piece for The Federalist was a review of an exhibition at the MFA in Boston displaying a selection of works from the artist’s archive, which was recently donated to the museum by his family. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on his most famous output, the portraits he painted of family, friends, and the powerful people of his day.
However there is another side to Sargent, which is often overlooked in surveys of his art, and that is his more intimate, informal work, such as that which accompanies this post.
“A Street in Venice” (1882), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, is one of my favorite paintings; it is so different from the glitzy, glamorous portraits that we usually associate with Sargent, as to appear to be the work of another artist. It depicts a young woman wearing a black, fringed shawl over a long white skirt and a red blouse, walking down a side street in Venice. Two men in hats and overcoats standing in a doorway are having a smoke and watching her as she passes by. In the background, a man and woman are sitting in chairs and chatting outside of another doorway, and although most experts think they are at a cafe, I always think that they are peeling vegetables as they talk.
There is nothing about the picture which immediately tells us that this scene is taking place in Venice. There are no canals, no gondolas, no extravagant churches or palazzi. It could just as easily be somewhere in Spain or France. It is probably winter, given the gray, overcast skies and the men’s heavy coats, although the young woman certainly isn’t dressed for the weather. She is either avoiding the gaze of the two men, or so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice them.
Given her attire, her downcast eyes, and introspective expression, I like to think that what we are looking at is what we might call a “walk of shame” picture, when you’ve stayed out all night and finally make your way home at dawn. If you remember the scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher walks home in the early hours of the morning, still wearing her party dress and overcoat after a night at the opera, and leisurely kicking a can down the street with her extravagant, beaded red heels, you get the idea. I suspect that this painting is set in the morning, since there are not a lot of people about yet, and the shop on the left side of the picture is closed.
Among the many wonderful things about this picture is the fact that there is hardly any color in it, and yet it is still a lively composition. There are a few slashes of red, in the young woman’s blouse and the flowers or comb that she is wearing in her hair, and in the center of the picture there is the pink skirt of the woman sitting in the background, but there is very little else in the way of bright color. Here and there we see some ochre, teal, olive, and brown, but the majority of the picture is composed of shades of black, white, and gray.
Textures are also beautifully rendered in this painting. Notice also how Sargent is able to suggest the bouncing of the fringe on the shawl as the woman walks, and the swishing of the white skirt around her feet, with a bare minimum of brush strokes. The heavy wooden door on the left is wonderfully observed, with the lower portion already gray from being splashed with rainwater countless times, while the upper portion is still its original color, thanks to its being higher up and slightly protected from the overhang of the building.
John Singer Sargent’s portraits are, understandably, his most famous work. Yet much like Velázquez, whom he admired and emulated throughout his career, Sargent was much more than someone who painted simply to flatter those who could afford his paintings. In quieter, more loosely-painted works such as this, he showed that he was not all flash and glam. Rather, he was someone who could create grand works of art, but could just as easily create an engaging, more personal picture, with a real sense of immediacy about it.