images courtesy artrenewal.org
There is another quality of Sargent's handling I want to point out. It is an outgrowth of the broadness I spoke of last night. That quality is called bravura brushwork. Bravura means "great skill" in Italian . Sargent's brushwork is beyond descriptive, it is intended to be beautiful and artful in its abstract appearance. It looks cool apart from its function as a descriptive mark. This young girls hair is a great example of this kind of handling (as brushwork is often called).
Handling doesn't exist in nature therefore;
YOU CANNOT OBSERVE HANDLING INTO A PAINTING!
Handling, at least bravura handling, is artful, it must be invented, or thought up. It calls for translation of the visible appearance into something else. Because of this intellectual effort, this decision making, it is art. Mere transcription is not particularly artful, as skilled as it might be. It is this lack of artfulness that lead a generation before mine to use the phrase "empty technique" incessantly, although they thought ALL technique empty.
Bravura work like this is technique, not empty but art laden. So bravura work is a way of adding art to a painting. There are great paintings that bear not a trace of it, Raphael might serve as an example of that sort of an artist. However there has been an ongoing tradition in painting that did emphasize bravura handling, running like a thread through the weave of our artistic tradition. Below is a Franz Hals that has bravura handling.
Notice the handling in the ruff about the neck of our celebrant here. It is paint, and it is linen, hanging in thick folds and ruffles. The artist is playing a game with the viewer, you see two things at once. At one glance you see abstract shapes of paint roughly troweled on the canvas and in the same instant you see a collar appear out of that seemingly disorder jumble of painted marks.
Look at the blouse this young ingenue is wearing. Here the game is how little can Sargent render, yet still convince you of the realness of the blouse. At a glance there is the blouse, but on closer examination there is almost nothing there. It is there, not there. That's fun to look at and awe inspiring too. The viewer wonders "how did he do that". It looks to have greater velocity than it actually had in the creation. Richard Schmid famously wrote that" loose is how a painting looks, not how it was done". Sargent very likely laid this in VERY deliberately indeed, probably very carefully. But it looks like it was thrown onto the canvas from a hod.