John Singer Sargent

Talk on John Singer Sargent at the Ingbretson Studios, Manchester, NH this Thursday August 27

Paul Ingbretson is opening up his painting school the Ingbretson Studios, on Thursday to give a talk on one of the great artists of the naturalistic tradition, John Singer Sargent and the movement that was inspired to a large degree by his influence, the Boston School of the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century.


John Singer Sargent was not a religious man, was not known for sacred art and neither was the Boston School. However, I recommend this talk for two reasons. First, because stylistically Sargent was an anachronism. Although he was trained in Paris in the 19th century, under the influence of his teacher Charles Durand (known as Carolus-Duran) he rejected the sterile neo-classicicism of the French academy and its corollary, the overly emotional portrayals of the Romantics and strove to follow the style of the great Spanish master of the 17th century baroque, Velasquez. This was not a theological or philosophical decision, as far as I am aware, it was based upon personal taste. He wanted to paint like Velazquez because he preferred his style. After training with Duran in Paris he went to the Prado in Madrid and taught himself further by copying every Velazquez on display in the museum. So, in his portraits and landscapes he incorporates the essential elements of the style of the baroque, which is an authentically Christian style, and can be accounted for by a Christian worldview. This style is rooted in the religious art that grew out of the Catholic counter-Reformation of the period. Therefore, anyone who wishes to understand the balance between natural appearances and idealization that must be present in all genuine Christian art, could do worse than study the work of Sargent.


Idealized naturalism is as much about what you don't show as much it is about what you do. The artist controls the focus, the intensity of colour and contrast of light and dark to draw your attention to the important points of interest, which must coincide with those which we would look at naturally if we were presented with the scene itself. We are made by God to curious about important things and uninterested in unimportant things and the artist must understand this.


The other reason for highlighting this is to give a profile to Paul Ingbretson. One of the most important reasons that there are any ateliers teaching the academic style at all today is the group of young men trained in Boston in the 1970s under the guidance of almost the only remaining teacher of the academic style at that time, an octogenarian called Ives-Gammell. Paul was one of these young men who went on to devote himself to passing on what he learnt to others.

Paul is not Catholic but he is, as far as I am aware, Christian. Certainly, his strong libertarian views mean that he encourages people of faith to connect this with their art when he teaches. This is not true of all the ateliers around, which can be just as aggressively secular in their worldviews as any other modern art school. Some of you may be aware of the Catholic painter based in Virginia, Henry Wingate. Henry, who paints portraits, still lives and sacred art, is one of Paul's star pupils.


The paintings shown are by Sargent, the first is Gassed, which comes from his work as a war artist during the First World War and shows soldier who have survived mustard gas and are blind being led from the battle ground. The second is Venetian Interior in which we can see how much Sargent communicates by his use of colour (or deliberate lack of it), focus and contrast.


David Clayton's book, the Way of Beauty, which contains a description of theological basis of the form of Western naturalistic art is now available from Angelico Press and

The Landscapes of Jean Charles Cazin

cazin_b1086_harvest_landscapeHere are some paintings of the French painter Jean Charles Cazin who died in 1901 (h/t Giovanni Patriarca). He is not painting in the Impressionist style, but in a more naturalistic style. The Impressionists gave a much more generally looser rendition of the subject matter and were inclined to exaggerate colour. These examples are drawing on a different sort of 'impressionism' that of Velazquez which was studied in 19th century Paris , that we see in paintings of artists such as John Singer Sargent. In my opinion this form of impressionism is superior to that work of the Impressionists such as Monet. The idea here is to reflect much more accurately how we really perceive things. So in these paintings some areas are painted loosely and those parts which are the natural foci of interest in the composition are more detailed. This reflects how we look at things, casting our eyes more slowly and carefully over those parts in a scene before us that are of greater interest and so in our mind's eye which is really where we 'see', those parts are always more detailed. He was admired in his day for his 'poetical' treatment of landscape and especially the scenes with peasants working in the fields. Some of these subjects are a little too sentimental for my taste. I have included some that do appeal, which I find tend to be those in which there are no human figures, or if there are any they do not figure too prominently in the composition. The scenes are all rural France except for the urban scene which is of Paris. Giovanni has written an article in which he talks of the problem of the frantic pace of modern life and how this habit of constant activity it engenders in us, even in recreation, acts to pull us away from meditation and contemplation in our prayer lives. For him, Cazin's rural scenes, especially those with workers resting in the fields are a visual inspiration that give us a sense of how to pause and give a moment to God. The article is published in Zenit here.



(c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation








Wonderful Exhibition of Sargent Watercolours at the Boston MFA

6I have just visited an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This is a must-see. The watercolours by John Singer Sargent display such skill and mastery directed towards such a beautiful and delightful end that I find it difficult to see how anyone could fail to marvel at them. I always think of Sargent as the last great artist in the naturalistic tradition. He was classically trained and died in 1925. Although he knew and was influenced by the Impressionists, he never reflected their excesses in his work. He always maintained the perfect balance of looseness with close, precise focus that one would have seen in the baroque Masters 300 years earlier and was so rare even in the 19th century; and similarly difficult to find even in the atelier trained artists of today.

Sargent was an American who was born in Florence and trained in Paris, but had strong connections throughout his life with Boston and London. He made his name as a portrait artist but around the turn of the last century abandoned portraiture because he did not enjoy it and no longer needed to paint them for financial reasons. He went on tours of Europe and North Africa and painted watercolours of what he saw. A number of these were later worked up into oil paintings, but most were not. An exhibition of his 7watercolours in Boston in 1908 was so well received that the MFA bought the whole show! Spurred on by this he continued to paint them with enthusiasm. In this show we see many from that first 1908 exhibition but also many from later tours. There is even an example from his paintings of the English troops ('Tommies') during the First World War - he was employed by British War Office to record scenes of combat. Seeing this reminded me of a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London where, hanging on the wall close to guns, Spitfires and Hurricanes on display there is a huge oil painting, (8ft x 20ft) of gassed and blinded troops being lead, hand in hand in a line, from the field of combat.

At this exhibition we were allowed, in accordance with the modern trend in exhibitions which is so heartening, to take photographs. Below I show the photos I took with my cell phone. I have produced a series of photos where you can see the whole painting, and then details, so you can get a sense of how he combines loose and expressive brushwork with more tightly controlled use so expertly. The details were taken separately with the phone just a few inches from the surface of the painting. I suggest that you just marvel at how the image pops out of what appears (deceptively) to be such casually applied paint.








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Murals by John Singer Sargent at Boston Public Library

Yes really, I do mean at the Boston Public Library. It is quite a surprise to go into the public library and find a wonderful set of murals painted by the great American artist. One room has a huge set of murals on an Arthurian theme and then right at the top of the building is a room that the library calls quite simply 'Sargent Hall'. This are adorned with a set of Christian sacred imagery all conforming to a unifying schema.I had heard about them before but only this past month have I seen them for the first time. They are oil on canvas set into the wall, with some painted plaster cast reliefs and were painted in a 20 year period from 1895. What surprised me was how Catholic the imagery is for civic buildings. Boston's Irish Catholic heritage is well known, but I hadn't anticipated that this Catholic influence would have reached up to the level of the dignitaries of the city at this time. Perhaps there is a high Episcopalian influence here as well? We have murals of the Old Testament prophets, of the crucifixion with the a representation of the dogma of the Trinity and angels carrying the instruments of the passion, Our Lady of Sorrows and the 15 mysteries of the rosary. Apparently when artistic tastes turned against the naturalistic style around the early middle 20th century, they were almost destroyed. Luckily for us were saved and the suggestion to paint over them was opposed. If these had been painted in England at the same time by any other artist, they would most likely have been in the pre-Raphaelite, and indeed there is some of that feel about them. However, Sargent, who is vastly superior to the English pre-Raphaelites, in my opinion, brings his knowledge of the 17th century baroque (which is the authentic liturgical root of the Western naturalistic tradition) into play. So just we would have seen in this earlier original period, we see in Sargent's work here the controlled intensification and depletion of colour; and variation in focus, carried out selectively to ensure that our eyes are drawn first to the most important points in each composition. The pre-Raphaelites in contrast painted with sharp outlines and even colour and so they overburdened their paintings with detail. It is very difficult to manage complicated compositions with many figures Sargent handles the variation of these components so brilliantly and subltely that I find it difficult characterise further what he is doing beyond knowing that he is doing it. The room, which is just a 3rd floor hall in the library leading to others containing library books, is difficult to photograph and so I give you the best I have been able to get hold of. One thing to point out about the style is that even though Sargent was trained as portrait painter, he seems to have understood the difference between sacred art and portraiture. The faces are less emotional and quite often placed in shadow, allowing us to identify with the general human characteristics of the person portrayed. This is in contrast to other sacred art of the 19th century and in accord with what a master of the 17th century, such as Zurburan, would have done. I have talked about this in more detail in an article called Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic? We can see this brought out especially in the sketches for one of the mysteries of the rosary. The ones shown are for the finding of the boy Jesus in the temple. As I studied these I was trying to picture these as a focus of prayer if they had been placed in a church. My personal taste in this regard is for the iconographic or gothic, so I am not the best person to make a judgement here, but my sense is that for those who are strongly attracted to the baroque style as liturgical art, these would seem appropriate and helpful. Certainly, I think that those Catholic artists who are interested in painting sacred art and have been trained in the academic method should study Sargent's style, which owes so much to the earlier 17th century form. This will help them to avoid the trap of imitating inferior artists of the late 19th century such as the aforementioned pre-Raphaelites and William Bougeureau (the reason that his style should be avoided, in my opinion, is described in the article linked above).

Our Lady of Sorrows

The 15 Mysteries of the Rosaray: three groups of five, each with a central mystery surrounded by four. From the left the sorrowful, glorious and joyful.