dear art historian tumblr: how long did it take John Singer Sargent to complete a painting, on average?

Thursday, October 11th, 2018



i need to know this because of Reasons

@lies I believe this may be your moment

Disclaimer: Not an art historian. Just a Sargent fan.

It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, because some works (El Jaleo, Gassed) were huge; more than 10 feet long. For works like that, or works where a lot was riding on the painting as he tried to build his reputation, he spent a looooong time. For El Jaleo, one of his first works to catch the attention of the Paris art world, he worked intermittently for nearly two years.

For Madame X he began sketching in June, 1883, and didn’t finish the painting until October or thereabouts, so, five months? After the disastrous reception of Madame X at the 1884 Salon he relocated to England, where his next major work was Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, which he worked on for more than a year, from September 1885 until October 1886. The time on that one was extended by the fact that Sargent chose to paint it en plein air in natural light, and specifically at dusk, when the light that he wanted to capture was just right.

An answer that might come closer to what you’re really after would be, how long did he spend on his commissioned portraits? These were his bread and butter, the type of painting he did under a certain amount of time pressure from a paying customer. There were two phases for these: Phase one was a series of “sittings”, described thusly in the Sargent wikipedia article:

After securing a commission through negotiations which he carried out, Sargent would visit the client’s home to see where the painting was to hang. He would often review a client’s wardrobe to pick suitable attire. Some portraits were done in the client’s home, but more often in his studio, which was well-stocked with furniture and background materials he chose for proper effect.[49] He usually required eight to ten sittings from his clients, although he would try to capture the face in one sitting. He usually kept up pleasant conversation and sometimes he would take a break and play the piano for his sitter. Sargent seldom used pencil or oil sketches, and instead laid down oil paint directly.[50]

He wrote to Ada Rehan (an actress whose portrait he’d been commissioned to paint, and who was anxious about the length of the sittings due to a recent bout of ill health), “I should argue, with more truth than seems likely, that a great many people find it rather a rest to [sit for a portrait] than otherwise, and also that some of my best results have happened to be obtained with a few sittings… (Lady Agnew was done in six sittings), but I always admit beforehand that it may take me much longer.” After the sittings there was then a longer period in which Sargent would finish the portrait; in the case of Rehan’s portrait Sargent worked on the piece from the spring of 1894 until March of 1895, so roughly a year.

Calendar time from start to finish is only one way of looking at it, though. At the peak of his portrait-painting Sargent was producing many portraits each year, so clearly the work on them overlapped.

Also, the monumental portraits were relatively time-consuming compared to smaller paintings. You didn’t specify portraits; you just said “paintings.” So, looking beyond the portraits (which he mostly stopped painting after he closed his studio in 1907), in the course of his career he produced roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors. Ignoring the charcoal and pencil sketches, that makes 2,900 painted works in a career that spanned roughly 45 years. Doing the math on that, and taking no account of time spent traveling/vacationing, it appears that he averaged one finished painting every 5.7 days.

Go John Singer Sargent! Way to paint, dude!

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