Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sargent and the bravura brushstroke.

images courtesy

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;


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.


artybecca said...

"How little can Sargent render, yet still convince you of the realness of the blouse."
When there's a painting I love, it's usually because of this quality of "barely any detail, yet the object looks exactly like what it is supposed to be." As you say, it looks easy, but only someone who has tried it and ended up with a mess, knows how hard it really is.

Unknown said...

I just found out tonight, there is a Sargent show at Adelson gallery in NYC. You heard it here first.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this painting by Sargent by the way, beautiful.

Anonymous said...

i am glad to have a name to this skill. thanks for that. another example of bravura that struck me was velazquez las marianas... Velezquez has just scribbled magic everywhere.

Bob Carter said...

I've always been turned on by bravura brushwork. As a kid, seeing Bellow's "Stag at Sharky's" in the Cleveland Museum, I was blown away by the slash of paint that describes the extended leg of the left fighter. That's when I knew I wanted to paint.

jake gumbleton said...

This is such a great set of posts Stape.
I love Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn and have been really pouring over their work lately. Interesting to have you break Sargent's stuff down a bit. There is suprisingly little discussion out there about the practicality of his painting.

The Bravura style is something I have been trying for in my paintings but knowing what to subordinate and leave out takes practice and experience. When usuing photography as refrenece I really struggle to not let my stuff get to 'hard' looking.

Bob: I LOVE that painting. It is such a great example of the brushstrokes and handling adding to the subject matter.

Amy said...

Add Cecelia Beaux to this great lineup of artists with bravura brushstroke. It's something to admire and strive for as a painter.

Unknown said...

These posts have me thinking, and I might not be able to express this just right, but it seems that we as artists have a growth curve of sorts.. inexperience causes one to try to "record" everything in a literal sense (ie, get out the tiny brushes and paint the lace on that sleeve.) Some folks never get past this, either out of choice, or just lack of ability to see differently. With a little bit more experience we are able to discern what the principal feature of something is, and go for that, and even more experience enables one to not only discern that "big idea", but to also decide exactly what we want to do with it - and use paint texture (thick and thin, transparent and opaque) as well as brushstrokes and color and value in a way that is visually exciting. I think this "growth curve" applies in general in our painting, and also to different subject matter, at least early on. Areas where we have lots of practice, say, landscape, we might better be able to generalize and go for the concept rather than the literal, and areas where we don't have so much experience, say, portraiture, we are still stuck in a lower level of just trying to record the literal.
That last painting of Sargent is just absolutely amazing - even the eyes of this young girl are painted with very little detail, and yet they read with such life and richness... masterful....

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Well Stape, this is certainly a topic after my own heart.

I fell in love with Sargent's work back in 1984 when he was just being reintroduced to the world as a forgotten master. In fact, Sargent is the very artist who inspired me to become a painter.

So, I feel it is helpful to share two things with anyone just discovering him:

1. He owes a huge debt to Velasquez, and he studied the Spanish painter intensely following his time in Carolus Durand's atelier, and he often talked about this debt during his life . . .


2. He often failed to hit those bravura strokes on the first attempt. A common complaint from the people who sat for Sargent was that he would work their portrait for hours -- even days -- only to scrape it off and build it up again. And again. And again. Until he hit the mark. (pun intended)

This does not in any way lower my admiration for the man, it only increases it. I found that Sargent's ability to sacrifice what he'd already invested in a painting to achieve the handling he wanted to be inspiring and I have learned that being able to the same is critical. (Not that I paint at Sargent's level...Ha!)

And yes, Sorolla and Zorn should be included in the Holy Trinity of 19th century bravura painters.

In tow weeks I will be in NYC and will stop by the Adelson for sure. For those who are interested, here is the URL:

An intimate venue for viewing such work. If any of you happen to be there at the same time as me be sure to introduce yourself. I'll be the one swooning on the floor...


billspaintingmn said...

It ain't easy being easy. The easier it looks, the harder it gets.
I like the statement,"adding art into your painting"

As a sign painter, there where certain letterings that called for a 'snap' of the brush. If done right it truely added class to the work.
Some of the ol' boys made a good living doing this type of lettering.
I was always amazed when I saw it.

Dot Courson said...

You cannot observe handling into a painting. Love that!

What do you think about students of other great masters who are painting today "observing the handling in the PAINTING" of bona fide contemporary masters and the transfer of it to their painting. It's cool looking- but final paintings seem done "just like " another artist consistently...

jeff said...

Sargent did some magnificent full sized studies of Hals as well as Velasquez. There is a small head study by Hals at the MFA in Boston that is a gem, it's about 8 x 10 or so. The economy of each stroke and how he nails the values is breath taking.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Great artists make it look easy, that is part of the trick.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I doubt I will get to that, will you buy one?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Of course Sargent worshiped Velazquez.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think it is remarkable how the niceties of painting register even on kids.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have not really broken them down too far yet. I may disassemble them more before I am through here.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Stape, Have been working from the model a lot lately so really notice these poses, they are all leaning forward. Very engaging to the viewer, more active, interesting! I am getting out my Sargent books to see if this was a regular device for him. These are great posts, at your blogs thought provokingly high level! Terry

Stapleton Kearns said...

Breadth is a quality for more experienced artists. Beginning painters always seem to want to noodle things to death.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I know a little about those working methods you describe as Gammell was a big exponent of that system. I will write about that before I finish.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is too bad that the old showcard lettering has become a lost art. I remeber when it was common, even in the grocery store and in public placard announcements for entertainment or air conditioning. Its cool inside!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I do take points off for that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I know that head.