John Singer Sargent at the National Gallery of Art

There are many great, paintings by American artists in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Eakins,  Homer, Chase, and Whistler are all in the NGA's collection.

                                    Winslow Homer “Home, Sweet Home”

My favorite American painter – indeed my favorite painter of all time – is in fact the least "American" of all the American artists in the National Galleries' collection. He is John Singer Sargent.

                                     John Singer Sargent later in life.

He lived from 1856 to 1925 and was born in Europe to parents who had roots near Philadelphia but had lived in Europe for years before his birth. Sargent was gifted from childhood and living in the seat of cultural Europe and having a family with the means to remain there only helped his talent grow. He was a most masterful artist, and a virtuoso at manipulating oil paint to convey any subject he chose.

                    John Singer Sargent “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” 71 1/2 x 48 1/8 x 4 in.

Every time I'm at the National Gallery and I see the painting above, I end up studying those hands. Particularly her right one, with the pinky extended. Just look at a close-up of that brushwork!

As with all masters of any discipline, he makes it look easy. Trust me, it's not! Look at those small strokes that are mere touches of the brush - They render form so convincingly and yet are so casually done! Of course the colors and values are spot on as well, which is a huge part (and only one part mind you) of the challenge of doing this type of oil painting.

Among all of Sargent’s awesome artistic talents was his ability to pose his subjects just so, and positioning a subjects hands is a huge part of that challenge.

Most of these types of portraits are huge because they were meant to hang in the huge victorian mansions of the subjects. Look at the angle I had to take in order to get as close as I could to the face.

Sargent has been dismissed by some modern day critics as being a mere "high society" portrait painter. To me his painting skills are above and beyond any painter of any era. Any classically-trained oil painter would love to have his skills and gain the notoriety he achieved during his lifetime because of those skills. He could paint any subject under the sun, and paint it beautifully. No surprise then, (and not a knock against him in my book) that he chose to paint subjects that could pay large sums of money for his work.


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