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Sargent's Painters
Any artist who has ever set up his or her easel in a public place and commenced painting can be sure of one thing. They're going to attract an audience. People don't usually think of painting as being a "performing" art, and I suppose the novelty of actually seeing a painter creating adds to this phenomena. Some artists enjoy being the centre of attention, others it makes nervous (stage fright I suppose) while others are so isolated in their "own little world" when they work, they might as well be in Madison Square Garden in front of thousands. Although it's been years since I did any "art in the park" painting, I always enjoyed it. People always ask if it bothers me if they watch. Then, regardless of my answer, they begin asking questions. I guess it's the art teacher in me, I always enjoyed this part most; and no, it never bothered me. Artists too are fascinated watching other artists work. In fact, they often paint pictures of it. Renoir painted Monet Working in His Garden in Argenteuill in 1873. Winslow Homer drew women painting in the Louvre, and Fantin-Latour painted Manet at his easel. But probably the most renowned artist for painting other artists was John Singer Sargent.

Sargent travelled a lot. He knew everybody in Europe, practically, so it was easy enough for him to hop from one guest room to another, wife in tow, dashing off some 700 watercolours during the course of a lifetime like a hotfooted tourist with a brand new camcorder. Although, like any tourist, his subjects tended to be famous architecture, beautiful gardens, antiquities, and other tourist attractions; he also had a penchant for painting painters. It didn't matter if they were famous or mere amateurs. One of his most charming, The Fountain, Villa Tortonia, Frascati, Italy depicts Jane de Glehn, perched primly atop a parapet, dressed in white, daintily daubing away at her canvas while her husband, also a painter, watches in bemusement. By the same token, we also see him painting with Claude Monet in 1885, long before the Impressionist was a household name. Sargent met Monet in the late 1870s and the two became good friends. He visited Monet several times at Giverny and even purchased several of his canvases. And though Sargent was no Impressionist, he frequently painted out-of-doors and, given the time constraints imposed by light and the environment, his quickly rendered paintings often take on Impressionist virtues.

Paul Helleu was another French painter and close friend of Sargent. Helleu was also an etcher and illustrator, most known for his stylish, romantic images of women. In 1889, Sargent painted Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife on the banks of a small stream, their faces largely obscured by hats, a brilliant red canoe in the background. Sargent found such work a welcomed respite from the trials and tribulations of society portrait painting, which, while affording him the jet-set (steam-set?) lifestyle he enjoyed, came to be something like work. A single wealthy individual once commissioned him to do twelve separate portraits of his wife and family. Eventually he "retired" from portrait painting (or tried to anyway), but that didn't keep him from still dashing off a few fascinating renditions of his artist friends. One of the more interesting, and certainly the most unusual, is that of Italian artist, Ambrogio Raffele, painting a landscape, not outdoors this time, but in the midst of a somewhat claustrophobically cramped hotel room, his view facing not some lovely scene out the window but an amusingly dishevelled, unmade bed. A London critic, admiring the work wrote, "Surely, never were tumbled white sheets so painted before." He might also have noted more broadly, the same being true of Sargent's artists.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
19 February 2000

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