John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900–1907 – Complete Paintings, Volume VII by Richard Ormond & Elaine Kilmurray - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Painting for Pleasure

John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900–1907 – Complete Paintings, Volume VII


Yale University Press 399pp £50 order from our bookshop

This is the seventh volume in the Complete Works of Sargent project, and in many ways the most interesting so far. It covers a seven-year period, 1900 to 1907, during which Sargent’s attitude to the purpose and practice of painting changed fundamentally. In 1900, Sargent was both the best, and the most fashionable, portrait painter on either side of the Atlantic. His work in other fields of art – figure and architectural studies, landscapes and gardens – was reserved for his holidays, when he used watercolour as well as oils. By 1907 he had decided to reverse this order of priorities. His holiday tasks became his main work, and his portraits were reduced to monochrome treatments in pencil, crayon or ink, which could be done in a day or two (apart from certain exceptions). This shift is not unique in art history. An outstanding example is Rubens, who shifted his focus from portraits and historical subjects involving human figures, which had made him the most celebrated painter in Europe, to big landscapes, most of which he did for his own pleasure. 

Pleasing himself was also Sargent’s main motive, but not the only one. He was committed to a vast series of murals in Boston, and needed to accumulate studies for them, especially in the Near East. He also discovered, during the years covered by this volume, that he could use paint

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