The Power of a Small Painting
SOME paintings have a strong attraction for our eyes; they have retinal power. Of all the paintings on a museum wall, they are the ones that our eyes light upon and return to - repeatedly. And like a line of poetry of unforgettable resonance, these paintings become part of our being. They are etched in our visual memories and remind us of the ``unexpected magnitudes,'' as poet Wallace Stevens has poignantly written, of color and paint. Amid several rooms of John Singer Sargent paintings at the New York Whitney Museum retrospective of several years ago, I found my attention riveted on one diminutive work, ``In the Luxembourg Gardens.'' All around, more imposing, were the monumental formal portraits upon which Sargent's reputation as a mature artist predominantly rests. Yet it is the image of this sophisticated Parisian scene, completed in 1879 when his career was still young, which has since attended my thought most steadfastly.
My experience may be attributable, in part, to the not unusual phenomenon whereby artists' smaller works sometimes speak to us more personally than do their larger works.
Large works often, though not always, gain preeminence by virtue of their monumentalization and distillation of certain themes, which the artist has explored on a smaller scale. Smaller paintings are sometimes the less codified, less restrained, more spontaneous explorations of the artist. They may resemble quick sketches in their feeling of immediacy, or they may be more contemplative drawings. Through their intimacy, these paintings speak to us sotto voce.
Consequently, smaller paintings may arouse the eyes and intrigue the mind in a way that correlative monumental paintings may not.
This seems especially true of Sargent. ``In Luxembourg Gardens'' appears equally balanced between the satisfying qualities of immediacy and contemplation, evanescence and permanence. These qualities virtually infuse the pigment. They are part of the painting's entrancement - as much a part as is the seemingly temporal suspension of the hushed, romantic twilight of the scene itself.
When we look for what fundamentally sustains the atmospheric curiosity of this moonlit day-night scene and the manifest mood of ethereal sentimentality, we find the actuality of the paint itself, rendered in Sargent's exquisite color. And it is here - beyond all generalities of painting size, artistic impetus, and content - that the retinal magic principally lies; for Sargent, quite simply, rarely approached the stunning allure of this palette in his monumental portraits.
The foreground is a cool, very white, lilac gray. It appears bluish light gray for its adjacency to the warmer lilac of the woman's dress, but the eye sees it as warm in relation to the blue sky, the background of the painting. The middle ground is a rhythmic interplay of luminous whites - architectural balustrades, ornamental urns, stairs, statues, reflecting pool - punctuated by piercing reds - flowers and the woman's fan - against the backdrop of the dark green garden.
The contrast between dark and light, between cool and warm tones, the subtle gradation of values, and the consistency of chroma (color intensity), interrupted only by intermittent flashes of brilliance from the vermilion accents, are masterly color and tonal oppositions which give the painting its soothing, delicate vitality.
The idea of a dialectical tension between opposites - or a balance between complementary qualities - might, in fact, be seen as the conceptual structure upon which the optical properties rest. It is the intelligence behind the artist's eye. It accounts for the apparent simultaneity of evanescence and permanence, for the atmospheric ambiguity between moonlight and sunset, and for the subtle, dramatic juxtapositions of tone and color.
Sargent plays out this theme in many other ways as well. For example, look at the way he brings the complexity of the Luxembourg Gardens (part man-made, part natural) of the dense middle ground into opposition with the simplicity of the strollers and moon (man and nature). Or the way he juxtaposes the darkness of the man to the lightness of the woman, thereby weaving a typical art-historical narrative thread by equating man with permanence and nature, and, by opposition, woman with ephemerality and culture.
In some ways, this painting could be viewed as a portrait (if not a self-portrait), prefiguring Sargent's later work.
But it is a portrait of a man and a woman the rendering of whose ``likeness'' was clearly for Sargent secondary to his concern with aspects of painting that transcend clinical verisimilitude or the impressiveness of size.
In sympathy with the townscapes of the Impressionists and with the fl^aneur, or stroller, paintings of Manet, this work depends for its poetry and freshness not on singularity, but on a rich overlay of painterly issues - on the retinal reality of painting and on the evocation of sentiments and implicit narrative themes that transcend the factuality of the scene.
We have the feeling that, whereas Sargent's realistic, photograph-like portraits were primarily intended for the approving eyes of his model or patron, this more elusive painterly world of color and intelligence reveals its unexpected magnitudes for our eyes.