How John Singer Sargent Became the Greatest Portraitist Who Ever Lived — by Painting “Outside the Lines”

Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as Youtube’s Nerd­writer, has cre­at­ed video essays on a host of visu­al artists from Goya to Picas­so, de Chiri­co to Hop­per, Leonar­do to Van Gogh. And though he nar­rates all his analy­ses of their work with evi­dent enthu­si­asm, one soon­er or lat­er comes to sus­pect that he isn’t with­out per­son­al pref­er­ences in this are­na. In the open­ing of his new video above does he name his per­son­al favorite painter: John Singer Sar­gent, for whom he makes the case by telling us why — and how — the artist “paint­ed out­side the lines.”

“Sar­gent came of age as the Impres­sion­ist move­ment, led by Claude Mon­et, flow­ered,” says Puschak. But despite his close asso­ci­a­tion with Mon­et him­self, “Sar­gent was not usu­al­ly count­ed among the Impres­sion­ists,” but he was an impres­sion­ist in that “the impres­sions of light and col­or were his sub­jects.”

By his ear­ly twen­ties, he had already become a mas­ter of con­jur­ing (and even enhanc­ing) real­i­ty on a can­vas with an absolute min­i­mum of brush­strokes or fine detail work. “High soci­ety came knock­ing en masse,” all want­i­ng to com­mis­sion a Sar­gent por­trait; in ful­fill­ing their orders, Sar­gent became “the great­est por­traitist who ever lived.”

It was also por­trai­ture that got him into trou­ble. After his “stun­ning paint­ing of a wealthy socialite” — Madame X, as pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture — “caused a scan­dal in Paris for being too racy,” he move to Eng­land. There he would paint Car­na­tion, Lily, Lily, Rose in 1885 and 1886, work­ing only dur­ing the “gold­en hour” just before sun­set in order to cap­ture its dis­tinc­tive light. Puschak explains that, apart from the pow­er of the artist’s long-refined small‑i impres­sion­ist tech­nique, “what Sar­gent gets here, by the accu­mu­la­tion of lit­tle effects, is an atmos­phere, a mauve-ish col­or­ing that gets in the air itself, which is what it real­ly feels like to be out­side on a sum­mer evening.” We all enjoy that feel­ing, of course, but in this paint­ing — Puschak’s favorite — Sar­gent estab­lished him­self as the most mas­ter­ful sum­mer-evening appre­ci­a­tor of them all.

Below you can watch from the Tate “How John Singer Sar­gent Paint­ed Car­na­tion, Lily, Lily, Rose”

Relat­ed con­tent:

When John Singer Sargent’s Madame X Scan­dal­ized the Art World in 1884

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

Why Mon­et Paint­ed The Same Haystacks 25 Times

How Andrew Wyeth Made a Paint­ing: A Jour­ney Into His Best-Known Work Christina’s World

Why Leonar­do da Vinci’s Great­est Paint­ing is Not the Mona Lisa

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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