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John Singer Sargent

Simplon Pass, 1911

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About the Artwork

The demands placed on John Singer Sargent by his unparalleled success as a painter of Gilded Age portraits on both sides of the Atlantic began to tire him soon after the turn of the 20th century. In 1907–1908 he declared that he was "shutting up shop in the portrait line" to focus on landscapes, informal figure studies (including Nonchaloir [Repose], 1911, National Gallery of Art), and mural paintings.

The artist undertook his landscape and figure paintings in oils and watercolors on many leisure visits to picturesque locales with friends and relatives, including this great Alpine pass in Switzerland near the border of Italy. He probably visited and sketched the view depicted in Simplon Pass as early as 1904, and returned for extended visits in 1909, 1910, and 1911. More than simply a document of the distinctive silhouette of the Hübschhorn and its surroundings, the view is a study of the clear Alpine light and air on the rocky terrain. The seemingly infinite variety of brushwork that endowed Sargent's vibrant portraits also enlivens this landscape (and others like it), describing the rushing stream at left, the colorful vegetation, and the dazzling sunlight sweeping across the foreground. The darker, drily brushed middle ground sets off the majestic peak. Here, too, light and shade define strong masses; while the mountain is mostly in deep shadow, passages of mauve emphasize its steep face. Thin, hazy clouds and pockets of snow connect its long slope to the brilliant sky above, which in turn harkens back to the sunlit foreground.

Sargent's deft manipulation of the painting's registers did not go unnoticed. When wealthy Ohio industrialist James Parmelee lent the painting to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1914, one critic deemed the canvas "brilliant and self-assured . . . [the artist] has outdone himself in juggling with perspective, and [gives] the result a look of spontaneous unconcern."

About the Artist

Born in 1856 in Florence to expatriate American parents, John Singer Sargent received his first formal art instruction at Rome in 1868, and then sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence between 1870 and 1873. In 1874 he was accepted at the Paris atelier of the portraitist Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran, and attended drawing classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began to exhibit at the Salon in 1877. Over the next few years several experiences had a significant impact on Sargent's artistic development: during a trip to Spain in 1879 he copied paintings by Velasquez at the Prado, in 1880 he visited Belgium and Holland, where he copied works by Hals, and in 1881 he met Whistler in Venice. The scandal engendered by Sargent's daring portrait of Madame Gautreau at the Salon of 1884 precipitated his departure to London the following year. In 1887 he visited and worked with Monet at Giverny, and made his first professional trip to America. In 1897 he was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design, New York, and the Royal Academy of Art, London, and he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in France.

By the turn of the century Sargent was recognized as the most acclaimed international society portraitist of the Edwardian era, and his clientele consisted of the most affluent, aristocratic, and fashionable people of his time. Noted for his dazzling technical virtuosity and painterly technique, he influenced an entire generation of American portraitists. Sargent resented the limitations of portraiture, however, and from the beginning of his exceptionally successful career took every opportunity to paint a wide range of genre subjects. Around 1906 he abandoned portraiture and worked primarily in watercolor, a medium in which he was extraordinarily gifted. Although an expatriate who lived in London, Sargent was committed to America's cultural development and executed important mural decorations for the Boston Public Library (1890-1919), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916-1925), and Harvard University's Widener Library (1921-1922). He died in London in 1925.

Source: NGA Systematic Catalogue

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