A rare artist who never struggled with poverty and obscurity, expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) enjoyed extraordinary success as a portraitist. In his prolific career, he finished approximately 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors.
At times, Sargent’s paintings took on the Impressionist flavor of his era and showed the influence of Claude Monet, whose works he studied in the 1880s. An example of this influence is his younger self-portrait in 1886.
Much of Sargent’s style, however, looked to 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez for its realistic portrayal and the rich detail of subjects. Most critics regard him as a realist who skillfully adapted the styles of 17th and 18th century portrait and landscape masters like Velázquez, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough to contemporary aesthetics.
Remarkably, while the rest of the art world slid into the trenches of modernism with the invention of Impressionism, Favism, and Cubism, Sargent held on stubbornly to his realist convictions. French painter Auguste Rodin called him the “Van Dyck of our times”; his detractors called him an anachronism.
His last self-portrait in 1906, an oil on canvas painting now in the Uffizi Gallery, Italy, shows an older and undoubtedly realist rendition of the painter. This self-portrait depicts the artist in a dark suit and a tuxedo shirt with bright white collars, posing with studied composure and restraint. The artist in the suit holds himself erect and appears to be joining his hands together or crossing them in front of his waist.
This posture creates a twisted tension on his suit, causing rippled creases on his sleeves. There is not much plasticity in the painting at all, as the artist is sitting motionlessly and looks quite stiff.
In this painting, Sargent uses a linear viewpoint but no orthogonals or distinct vanishing point, so the artist is looking straight at us even though his body orientation is slightly turned at an angle.
The only background is shading created by a light source that illuminates the figure. Minimizing the background puts the emphasis on the artist himself, and Sargent might have wanted it this way to focus on the communication between the artist and the viewer.
Use of Lines
Sargent’s usage of lines is a prominent element in this self-portrait. There are very strong lines along the silhouette of the figure. There are also lines along the lapel of the suit, implying a downward movement from the figure’s neck to his waist.
The folds and creases on the suit suggest volume. The lines on his face, along with the usage of light, help to model the artist’s head. The eyebrows of the artist and the edge of his hard, protruding nose form powerful lines that suggest strong character and commanding presence.
This display of power is not surprising because by the time of this painting in 1906, Sargent was already one of the most successful portrait painters in the 19th century, who could pick and choose his commissions. At the same time, the soft wrinkles on the artist’s face and the graying beard show the unforgiving ravages of time and toil.
Striking Use of Light
The most striking feature in Sargent’s self-portrait is his use of the light source. The light seems to come from a studio lamp or a concentrated source from the upper left corner of the room and shines toward the artist at a slant. It guides the viewer’s eyes from the top right side of the figure’s forehead down through his face to the brilliantly white collars, then down to his lapel.
Besides the evident thrust from top right part of the painting to the bottom, the light also provides contrast and suggests space. The artist emerges from the obscure, undefined background to face us in a very real, three-dimensional pose.
Sargent treats the relationship between the subject and the background in a way reminiscent of 16th century Venetian painter Titan’s portrait of Charles V stepping out of the darkness.
In addition to a brilliant light source, Sargent uses a limited but sharp palette in this portrait to unify the painting. The artist’s face is ablaze with bright yellow, with some orange and red, as brushstrokes of graying beard and black hair frame it. The collars below dazzle in their whiteness, especially the outside edge facing the light source.
The rest of the suited upper body and the background, covering about five-sixths of the canvas, is filled with the complementary colors of brown, dark purple, and black, in contrast to the yellow and white around the artist’s head.
The starkness of the color contrast could be a metaphor for the artist’s unflinching (and perhaps enlightened) artistic integrity in the midst of darkness and chaos.
Overall, this painting is arguably open because the viewer sees only the upper body of the figure, not his entire body. There is also not enough explanation for the light source.
The grave demeanor of the artist seems to imply something serious or even troubling in the artist’s life, but the painting provides no additional information.
This self-portrait is one of Sargent’s last portraits before he stopped painting portraits in 1907 for some time. This leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Nevertheless, there is no question about the realist approach that Sargent employed in painting his self-portrait—a throwback to the Old School style that resisted the artistic trends of the early 20th century.
His use of light source, treatment of background, and attention to details show the influence of 17th century artists such as Velázquez mixed in with his own adaptation of modern realism, making him a true Van Dyck of the late 19th and early 20th century.