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Seeing Sargent Face to Face

Friday, December 19, 2014

By Jerrod Partridge, Oil Painter and Guest Blogger

As a portrait painter, it is almost a cliché to say that I like John Singer Sargent. He is revered with such popularity that I am tempted to join such critics as John Dewey saying “Sargent is not a great painter.” But I can’t. I love his impeccable drawing abilities, his confidence with the brush, his expressive compositions, and his understanding of the use of color which primarily raises its pretty little head in his remarkable watercolors. His pictures were even appreciated by the famous deaf and blind southerner Helen Keller who wrote in a letter to a friend, “Everyone here is talking about the Sargent pictures. It is a wonderful exhibition of portraits they say. How I wish I had eyes to see them! How I should delight in their beauty and color! However, I am glad that I am not debarred from all pleasure in the pictures. I have at least the satisfaction of seeing them through the eyes of my friends, which is a real pleasure.”

I have several stories of the impact Sargent paintings have had on me, but none may be as memorable as spending the day at the Mississippi Museum of Art copying Sargent’s portrait of Albert de Belleroche in the exhibition, Robert Henri and Spain, Face to Face. It was an experience that probably raised more questions than it answered. The subtleties of the piece become more apparent when you stare at something for that many hours, and the expected question of “How did he do that?” comes again and again.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), Portrait of Albert de Belleroche, c. 1882. oil on canvas. Collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Mrs. A.E. Carlton Memorial Purchase Fund, FA1961.1.

It seems odd that it should take me all day to copy a painting that was probably done in a couple of hours. However, most of my time was spent doing studies for the study. I started with a nice long stare at the painting, allowing it to reveal secrets of the process, and even relating it to the Robert Henri portrait hanging next to it. Next, I did a couple of drawings of the painting to more familiarize myself with the design of the piece, i.e. the use of positive and negative space. When I pulled out my paints I began an almost forensic process of trying to figure out the palette of colors to use. I did a swatch board of similar colors and mixtures. Finally, I attacked the prepared canvas with the confidence of someone who knows they know nothing.

It wasn’t my intention to copy every brush stroke. I spent about two and a half hours on the final painting. My goal was to get a better sense of Sargent’s sensibilities. The way he defines a cheekbone while he refrains from defining an ear. The way a single brush stroke can reveal the roundness of the eye, its moisture, and it directional gaze. The way a simple head tilt, a slight raising of the eye brow, and lips that are just about to part create the feeling of a person about to breathe.

I wish I could say that I was successful in portraying all of this. I wasn’t. But the humility that comes with such a process is part of growth. Perhaps through my observations someone will, as Helen Keller said, see Sargent through my eyes, and bring them real pleasure.

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As part of Museum24, the final weekend all-night celebration of the Spanish Sojourns and Robert Henri exhibitions on Friday, January 2, Jerrod Partridge will give an in depth talk at 7 PM about the historical precedent for copying Museum portraits and discuss more about his experience sharing a space with Sargent. Learn more and get your tickets to the event here.