Of all the paintings I saw in the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent's portrait of the Victorian beauty, Elizabeth Winthrop Chandler, was my favorite.
The painting measures roughly 49x40 inches, and is situated in such a way that as you walk through the doorway of the room it resides in, it is the first piece to grab your attention - and grab mine it did.
I’ve seen this work many times in books, but seeing this, in person really gave me a new appreciation for the high degree of "finish" Sargent's work has. The entire paint surface, from the supple skin of her face to the loosely painted areas of the background, are so confidently executed it's amazing. The paint is luscious and buttery in all the right spots, while other areas are thinly painted leaving bits of the canvas ground color showing through.
Like every great traditional painter, Sargent lays in the middle and dark values first, before moving on to the lighter values. Sargent, draws very confidently with the brush, probably using that umber color on the left side of her neck. That area seems to me, to be left untouched right through finish. Why? Because Sargent is such a master of values that no more reworking of the darks is needed. They dovetail beautifully with the rest of the values and colors of the painting from beginning to end.
Edges are hugely important in paintings. They can draw the viewers eye to an area by being more sharp, or they can make areas less noticeable by being more blurred or fuzzy. I love looking at edges in Sargent’s paintings. The sharpest edge in this painting is the right side of her lovely face.
Look at the soft edges of her eyes (below). They are soft-edged but that’s fine because in most portraits a viewer’s eyes will lock right in on the sitters eyes. In the few portraits I’ve ever done, the eyes were always too hard-edged.
Just look at the loose way her hands (along with the rest of the painting) is executed, in comparison to the face. While viewing the entire work and focusing in on her beautiful eyes, the viewers eyes reads those hands as if they were painted as detailed as the face, yet when we isolate them, we can see that Sargent was such a virtuoso that he can render the hands and jewels with quick but delicate strokes of both thick and thin paint and they look just right.
This is why I can easily spend up to 40 minutes or more at a museum in front of a painting I love. First I like to take in the whole work and consider the placement of elements compositionally, while thinking about what part of the piece my eye was drawn to first and why it was drawn there. Next I look close and study every detail of the paint surface that I’m drawn to, edges, colors and all. Then I’ll step back again. Finally I’ll shake my head and slowly walk away.