Not just any country scene: Karen Hosack explores John Singer Sargent's homage to Monet
John Singer Sargent 1856-1925
Born in Florence to American parents, John Singer Sargent travelled most of his young life from city to city in Europe, with his wealthy expatriate parents. With little formal education, he grew up speaking Italian and French and some German, as well as becoming familiar with European culture.
In 1874 he went to Paris to train under portrait painter Carolus-Duran, where he was a star pupil, developing a realistic traditional style. He was also touched by the Impressionist spirit of the time.
This painting shows a painter painting. But it's not just any painter painting; it's Claude Monet, one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. We can see Monet working on a picture called "Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny", now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
After John Singer Sargent had met Monet at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876, when Sargent was 20 years old, the two became firm friends for the rest of their lives and often painted together. Sargent would sometimes stay at Giverny, Monet's house in Normandy where this painting was made. He also bought some of Monet's works and painted his portrait on other occasions. Sargent was so inspired by his friend that this painting is in reality a homage to him. It even uses a technique reminiscent of Monet's fluid style. The long strokes, made with a brush loaded with oil paint, produce a variety of textures and give the painting movement. If we look closely at Monet's palette, for example, we can make out the basic shapes of his painting kit, yet, as in a photograph taken at slow shutter-speed, his hand seems to skim across its surface as he mixes his colours.
Both men were interested in capturing the effects of light in their paintings, and they would regularly work together en plein air (outside) to achieve this. This method of immersing oneself within nature and painting the scene in one sitting was not strikingly different to how artists had painted previously. However, instead of considering such open-air sketches as preparation for larger works to be made back in the studio, the Impressionists saw their more immediate paintings as finished pieces ready for sale or exhibition.
At the time, many critics saw this as an affront to the painstaking work of established artists. It is that Impressionist engagement with the natural world that really comes across in this image. First, the lush greens used for the grass and foliage, and the dappled sunlight showing through the trees, give us the sense that the two characters are sitting in a shaded spot on a late spring or early summer day. Colour also embeds Monet in the scene. By placing the same tones on his trousers and the trunks of the trees, Sargent suggests that his friend is at one with his environment.
Monet's chair legs almost resemble a root formation, grounding him to the soil. And as the painter's right hand and sleeve merge with the picture on his easel, we wonder, where does Monet end and his landscape begin?
Sargent was primarily a society portrait painter, but around the time of making this picture he was becoming disillusioned with formal portraits and turning more towards landscape. This move was partly due to a scandal caused by his portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau shown at the Paris Salon (the annual French exhibition of contemporary art) in 1884. The portrait, known as "Madame X", was attacked on aesthetic and moral grounds. The main criticism was directed at the brazen and provocative attitude of the subject, wearing a low-cut dress and posing with her face turned away from the viewer.
Although he never married, Sargent could be said to be a champion of women at a time when their rights were beginning to be seriously debated and questioned. In some of his better-known works, including "Madame X" and "Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth" (Tate), women are shown as powerful individuals.
Perhaps, then, it is confusing that the woman, most probably Monet's wife, in "Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood" has the painter's back turned towards her. An alternative interpretation is that Sargent shows the female as separate and independent from the male, who in this case is more interested in painting the beauty of nature than in her as a muse.
Both Sargent's "Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood" and "Madame X"
can be seen in the Americans in Paris 1860-1900 exhibition at the National Gallery. For the first time in Britain this exhibition brings together the works of 19th-century American painters who were drawn to Paris, the art capital of the world. It looks at those artists, including Sargent and Whistler, who studied there at the time when Impressionism was unfolding, and explores what they would have found, how they responded to it and what they retained of their experience.
lAmericans in Paris 1860-1900 is at the National Gallery, London, until May 21 (pound;9 concessions, pound;8 students, 12-18s pound;4.50, under 12s free accompanied by an adult, for groups of 12 or more tel: 020 7014 8444, no booking fee). To book a free school-group guided tour of the permanent collection on themes of your choice, tel: 020 7747 2424 www.nationalgallery.org.uk
An illustrated book accompanies the exhibition, pound;25 paperback, pound;40 hardback, as well as a DVD, pound;15, available from the National Gallery and www.nationalgallery.co.uk
Karen Hosack is head of schools at the National Gallery
Ask pupils to experiment with a variety of painted textures using long and short strokes and brushes fully loaded with either paint or drier.
Ready-mix paint would be suitable for this exercise. The children could use the view from the classroom window as a subject.
Introduce pupils to oil paints and traditional painting equipment, such as brushes, a palette and an easel. Talk about the smell of the paint, its properties, such as taking a long time to dry, and how it is different from other media the children are more familiar with.
Experiment with painting outside and capturing a scene in one short sitting. Discuss what problems occur; why many artists had used the sketches they produced outside mainly to inform their studio work; and how the Impressionists differed.
With the invention in 1841 of the collapsible screw-top tube for oil paints, John Rand made painting with oils out of doors far easier. Ask students to research this turning point in the history of art, and also to find out about the new chemicals being used to make pigments at the time.
Using the internet, search for "Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny", the picture Monet is painting in "Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood".
Compare the image depicted by Sargent with Monet's. What differences and similarities are there? Experiment making miniature versions of other Impressionist paintings in the same way.