Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Sargents 'In the Luxembourg Gardens'

25 7/8 x 36 3/8 inches (65.7 x 92.4 cm) Framed: 38 × 48 3/4 × 4 inches (96.5 × 123.8 × 10.2 cm)

Artist: John Singer Sargent:
Title: In the Luxembourg Gardens.
Date: 1879
Though not on public view, it is stored in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Examining the works of great artists and analyzing them help when considering my own compositions and the impact which paintings make. The conclusions I come to are my own.

This outdoor oil painting is set at dusk in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris, and was painted by John Singer Sargent. It appears to be a very simple image, perhaps painted just for the sake of painting but a closer examination suggests something far more complex. Perhaps this was a visual experiment by Sargent. The painting is neither simple nor detailed and does some amazing things with focus.

At first glance we have the impression of crowds and a romantic couple walking together under the setting sun.
Sargent gives us the impression of scattered blurry groups of people around the park and a couple walking together silhouetted against a line of trees and architectural furniture. The ambiance is very calm and relaxed with the setting sun blending into the grayish sky. It seems a very simple scene. Sargent hasn’t focused on detailing the foliage or even the furniture scattered around the park. His brush suggests more than describes the background and the crowds. These people may be simple silhouetted values but they are masterfully done. Illusion is the most appropriate description of this painting.  

However when we examine the painting closely we see something interesting. Our attention is cleverly focused onto the couple using color values, detail and definition. Their faces are framed by the dark suit of the man and the light violet dress of the woman as they come forward from the mid value of the background and stand out from the light value of the gravel walkway.

The rest of the scene is under the light of dusk with the sun and it’s golden reflections in the pond. The color value of the sun and the sky are the same despite the impression of luminosity so it doesn’t drag our attention away from the central element, the face of the man.

There is a musical rhythm in the pattern of lights and reds which dance around the mid value background forms. The positioning of the sun and it’s reflections in the pond correspond to the luminous band of the mans straw hat and the golden reflection from the woman’s bonnet in a way which brings the main characters forms even more forward. The eye moves across and down and back across the painting, never resting long on any one thing, as long as the viewer is not too close to the painting.

Focusing our attention:
Sargent put a lot of detail into the couple and particularly into the gentleman. As the eye travels across the painting the lack of real detail allows our eyes to wander without distraction until we arrive at the couples faces. Here our attention becomes fixed and the eye stops. Suddenly there is some subtle detail and it is as though the entire painting conspired to bring us there.

The woman’s face is half obscured by the material keeping her hat in place and the shadow of her hair. We don't see her eyes. The red flash of her fan against the dark of her companions suit further frames our attention.

Above it, the tip of the mans cigarette glows in the dark and draws us in. It even has a yellow point in the center. His brightly lit collar ends the flow of  movement and we bounce back to the details of the face. We can see his eyes and the brows but even as we get a grip on who this person might be, our focus begins to fade as everything begins to blur once again.

As we move beyond the well lit collar, his companions yellow bonnet, tied in place by a light material, begins to go out of focus and there is only a hint of rosy cheeks and a suggestion of mouth. This change of focus radiates in all directions from the central element of the mans face. Even as we move from his collar to his hand and from there to the feet there is a definite transition to vaguer forms with softer edging.

 The womans hand on her dress is the next most defined element with beautiful transitions between light and dark planes but again when we reach her feet, they are simply vague and suggested. It's masterfully done.

This appears to be a very simple, attractive painting from a distance but as we look closer, much more is revealed and a great deal of artistic alchemy is expressed. Was this an experiment of Sargents to control the viewers experience. As though telling a story about this couple or to make us wonder about the young man and his future. So much around them is out of focus, yet they glow and twinkle in the scene. Perhaps Sargent was thinking that the main characters light was about to be obscured just as the sun glows in the sky on it’s way to setting.

1879 was the date of the Anglo - Zulu war.

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