Of Youth and Genius: Sargent at the Amon Carter

[[File:John Singer Sargent A Street in Venice.jpg|thumb|John Singer Sargent A Street in Venice]]“The Youthful Genius” – four paintings by John Singer Sargent from the Clark Art Institute, current exhibited at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, is mini-scaled show mixed with monumentality and intimacy. All painted by Sargent when he was aboard, between the age of 22 and 27, the artworks are extraordinary for painters of any age; yet the prenominal virtuosity demonstrated at such a young age only proves a hopeless conclusion that genius cannot be taught or passed on.

While Eric has discussed “Portrait of Carolus-Duran” before, “A Street in Venice” is a painting that testifies Sargent’s dashing confidence in venturing away from conventionality in his twenties. Had he not wanted to live “well” by catering his high society circle, perhaps he would have been more revolutionary in the art history.

“A street in Venice” captures a glimpse of a private conversation in a dark alley. The shedding stucco would look sketchy to tourists without two persons under a sign of a wine store. Instead of painting architectural grandeur in palazzo or jewelry colors of the canals, Sargent’s seemingly arbitrary choice of Venetian scenes provides ample opportunities to showcase his mastery handling of extreme wide range in tonality and painterly brushstrokes that proved him at the forefront of art movement. Impressionistic in terms of the casual snapshot style, the picture, however, was harmonized in a warm grey. Even the salmon pink of the woman’s skirt was subtly toned down to grab viewers’ attention just enough without subverting the mysterious atmosphere.

The painting carries a narrative undertone yet is ambivalent in whatabout. While the man in black seems to be engaging in a conversation, we are, momentarily, in the direct eye contact with the woman. Her facial features are succinct yet efficient to indicate her mindsets seem to move between the interchange and the occasional passbys. The strong perspective that almost tilts up the alley road only enhances the narrative angle by bringing viewers into the action, in which the man’s head seems to coincide with the vanishing point.

Critics were not favorable to his paintings of Venetian “randomness.”  Arthur Baignères said in 1883 that the painting “leads us into obscure squares and dark streets where only a single ray of light falls. The women of Venice, with their messy hair and ragged clothes are no descendants of Titian’s beauties. Why go to Italy if it’s only to gather impressions like these?”

Yet by distracting the woman and engaging in a brief eye contact, we have somehow entered into the life of a regular Venetian resident. And that peculiar psychological curiosity as voyeurs through random street encounters resonates with us, as urban dwellers of our own time.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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