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Sargent's Studio
Next to an artist's painting style, nothing tells more about that individual than a peek in his or her studio. Mine is relatively small and looks something on the order of a home office. It's an image I cultivate as much for the IRS as for myself. There's the mat cutting department, the drawing department, the painting department, and the computing department where I tap out these daily missives; each occupying its own little corner of a room about the size of a small, one-car garage. It's me. It reflects not only who I am, but also what I do, and how I paint. It's not the cleanest room in the house but it is neat and orderly--just like me. I've seen other artists' workspaces. They vary in type from pig pens to parlours, and in ambience from Andy Warhol factories to Martha Stewart chic. In every case, both the artists and their work are reflected quite accurately in their working environment.

In the early 1890s, John Singer Sargent set up shop in New York. He had a London studio as well which he also used when the mood struck him, though in truth, he worked wherever the money was. Being something of the "jet set" type, his lifestyle often involved several week-long transatlantic crossings per year aboard opulent ocean liners at a time when "getting there" was probably more than half the fun. The house at 33 Tite Street wasn't a mansion exactly, but it was large and comfortable. As befitted a socialite portrait artist, he held several invitation-only dinner parties to show it off and no doubt tempt wealthy, female, friends to engage his services. The biggest room in the house was the studio of course, said to be over thirty feet in length. With its furnishing arranged neatly around the outside walls, which in turn were loaded down with shelves containing props and other tools of his trade, the room appeared somewhat sparsely furnished and even bigger than it really was. A large wooden easel dominated its centre.

As they do today, the room reflected Sargent's painting manner. His wife described his approach as being more like fencing than painting as the artist moved slowly back from his easel, then, deciding what to do, would suddenly bolt forward slashing at the canvas with a large, overloaded brush in an effort to capture a fleeting mental image before once more stepping back to judge his efforts. It was such a noisy, exciting spectacle, amateur artists would often come just to watch, which only seemed to heightened Sargent's eccentric antics--shouting, whistling singing operatic passages--always animated and joyous. Only near the finish of each portrait did he work close to the canvas and even then, he seldom sat down. He claimed his approach allowed him to concentrate on the picture, not just the person. He once advised a student, "Do not concentrate so much on the features. Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple." In this effort, by his own estimation, Sargent commonly racked up some four miles per day dashing about his spacious studio. I often stroll a few feet from one chair to another in my cosy little nook; even though, inasmuch as they both have wheels, I could just as easily glide.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 December 1999

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