A Sargent Copyist…


Earlier this year, I painted a picture in Pittsburgh while I was acting in “Private Lives” at the Public Theatre (bit of a tongue-twister there …”I painted a picture in Pittsburgh at Pappas’ Public play Private Lives!”) …Ahem. As I was saying, It is a copy, in oil, of John Singer Sargent’s “Eugene Juillerat”  – a very early painting in Sargent’s ouvre.

Juillerat and Sargent knew each other as students in the Atelier of famed Parisian artist Carolus Duran, and it was there that this chiaroscuro portrait was executed in 1878. It is a prime example of Sargent’s precociousness and early mastery. Early works such as this one prompted the American novelist Henry James to observe “The slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of it’s career has nothing more to learn.”

Sargent’s portrait of Juillerat has always been one that I particularly admired. I have copied Sargents’ work many, many times (Copying is a time-honoured tradition in painting – Sargent himself was a copyist in his youth) in pencil, once in acrylic but never in oil. Finally my curiosity about painting’s most traditional method was more than I could resist – I bit the bullet and bought oils. If you’ve ever painted with them, you’ll know that this is no small expense – especially the first time, when you have to buy everything: not just the paints themselves but brushes, palette, mediums, turpentine, etc. One thing that I loved, though, was researching the exact paints that Sargent used. There is a fair bit of evidence as to the exact pigments he employed, including in-depth technical analysis of his portraits at the Tate Gallery in London, and so it is possible to paint with a very close – if not exact – palette to the one Sargent used. It was a delight to wander the aisles of Dick Blick’s Art store, on Bond Street in NoHo in New York, looking for Sargent’s own choices: Pigments with wonderful names like Garance Fronce (Rose Madder), Mars Yellow, Venetian Red, French Ultramarine, etc.  Once I had all the colours and brushes assembled, I packed them all up in my suitcase, along with a canvas board or two, and took them with me to Pennsylvania. It was a contemplative, soothing though also somewhat hypnotizing project to work on; For about three weeks it seemed that all I did was to look back and forth between Sargent’s painting and my copy.

I am happy with the way the picture turned out, even if I did give Juillerat a slight tilt of the head that he doesn’t have in Sargent’s original (note to self: always get angles right from the start. After that, there’s no going back! ) and I am now a complete convert to oils. It’s the first time I’ve been able to experience the “wet-into-wet” technique that Sargent employed, and the process is really intriguing : The oils stay wet for days at a time, so the ability to blend edges the way the master did is a possibility. Very exciting to have a window into the way Sargent created some of his bravura effects. It was a great learning process.

I’m now contemplating my next project, and I have a yen to do something on a bigger scale. …Lord Ribblesdale, perhaps?