John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents who traveled throughout Europe, returning most frequently to Italy. "His numerous sketchbooks from spring and early autumn of 1869 (he was thirteen years old) reveal the family's exhausting itinerary: Rome, Tivoli, Frascati, Pompeii, Vesuvius, Capri, Naples, Sorrento, Ancona, Rimini, Pontresina, Saint Moritz and Alpine passes. Sargent's juvenile drawings and watercolors of mountain crags, dense forests, jutting rocks, village streets, stray animals, museum statues, and local people were the seeds of his art. These youthful records evolved into the themes that absorbed him as a mature artist." (W. Adelson, "In the Modernist Camp," Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York, 1997, p. 10) A rich mix of color, textures and light, Ricordi di Capri of 1878 exhibits Sargent's early mastery of his combined Impressionist techniques and modern style to capture a snapshot of peasant life on the island of Capri.
At age 18, Sargent's mother decided her son should move to Paris to best improve his talent. As a student of Carolus-Duran in Paris, he compared favorably to his peers. "He was older than his years, he was better educated, he was more worldly, he was confident, and he had the high patina of sophistication. His fellow students were dazzled by him, and baffled...He was forbiddingly superior, yet modest; at best he was a perplexing enigma. No definition could help observers to negotiate his character." (S. Olson, "On the Question of Sargent's Nationality," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1987, p. 17) After Carolus-Duran's first review of Sargent's work, the stern master is reported to have concluded that the young man "showed 'promise above the ordinary.'" (C. Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1982, p. 37) Only four years after his first formal instruction, Sargent's The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (1877, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1878.
While in Paris, Sargent did not just surround himself with the teachings of Carolus-Duran. He studied "the Barbizon tonalism of Camille Corot and Jean-Charles Cazin, the painterly realism of Gustave Courbet, and the plein-air glare of Éugene Boudin. Edgar Degas and others of the Independent movement ignited the Paris art world with their camera-influenced compositions and unadorned views of city life. The flowing brushwork, creamy paint, rich facture, and stark light of the older Edouard Manet's work made an indelible impression on the young Sargent..." ("In the Modernist Camp," Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, p.11) The artist also worked with such Impressionist artists as Pierre-Auguste Renoir with his closest association to Claude Monet, whom he seems to have met as early as 1876 at the second Impressionist exhibition in Paris. It was at the Impressionist exhibitions that Sargent was exposed to scenes of daily life rendered in cropped, asymmetrical compositions influenced by photography, techniques used by Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, in order to capture a moment in time.
In 1876, Sargent went to the States to see the Centennial celebrations as well as receive his American citizenship. The following year he returned to Italy and in the autumn of 1878 he found new subject matter in the peasant life of Naples and Capri. When he arrived on Capri, Sargent met up with several other artists, including English artist, Frank Hyde, who were living and painting in the abandoned monastery of the Convent of Santa Teresa and took up residence there as well. In Ricordi di Capri, Sargent depicts two young children on a staircase where the golden, suffused light of the evening softly haloes their heads. He has captured this everyday scene, quickly recording the children in their natural surroundings. Sargent advised his students to "Arrange a composition decoratively, easy and accidental." (as quoted in "Venice," Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, p. 188) In Ricordi di Capri, it appears Sargent has just come upon this spot and decided to paint it.
Ricordi di Capri superbly demonstrates Sargent's fresh and original approach to plein air painting. Sargent painted with a dashing technique of discernible brushstrokes that emphasized his rich color and bravura brushwork in a modern style. In broad brushstrokes of modulated creams and pinks, Sargent works up the surface of the canvas to convey the texture of the stucco building which dominates the foreground, while delicately rendering the faces and hands of the young children. Quick dashes of gold and soft blue paint infuse the scene with a distinct evening light that highlight the imposing staircase. Sargent's fascination with the effects of light was the result of his relationship with the Impressionist artists in Paris. In Ricordi di Capri, Sargent luxuriates in the effects of diminishing light, carefully observing and capturing its subtleties at a particular moment. The broad brushstrokes sweep through the olive trees adding movement to the air. The spontaneity of the brushwork suggests that he was working quickly, as if racing to apply the paint before the setting sun was lost behind the horizon.
Bruce Robertson notes, "The nature of both his success and his genius may be said to consist of a delicate balance between advanced painting and traditional subject, a balancing act he carried on in most aspects of his life." (Sargent and Italy, Princeton, New Jersey, 2003, p. 9) It was this combination that produced his best works including Ricordi di Capri, rendering a daily scene on Capri of two local children in a modern style.