Sargent spent the summer or early autumn between 1885 and 1889 in the English countryside. He had come from Paris, where his precocious talent was the talk of the town, his portraits and genre pictures garnering critical acclaim at the Salon and at smaller exhibition venues. An apparently irresistible arc was interrupted by the succès de scandale of his portrait of a beautiful young socialite, Amélie Gautreau (Madame X, 1883-84, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Sargent was thrown off balance by all the brouhaha attending it and, partly in response to the persistent encouragement of the novelist Henry James (1843-1916), he decided to try his artistic fortunes in England.
It was a period of transition for Sargent and, with few portrait commissions forthcoming, he embarked on a period of sustained experimentation with Impressionist concerns and practice. In the late summer and autumn of 1885 and 1886, he was in Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting a few portraits, some landscapes and flower studies, but engrossed by a major picture, a study of two little girls dressed in white, lighting Japanese lanterns in a garden at dusk (Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86, Tate Britain). The atmosphere in Broadway was liberating and creative, leading Henry James to declare that ‘[t]here is portraiture in the air and composition in the very accidents. Everything is a subject or an effect’. Sargent was absorbed into a lively Anglo-American artistic community, which revolved around the American artist, Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912) and his beautiful wife, Lily. Visitors included Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Henry James (1843-1916) and Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), and music, theatre, games, tennis and parties filled the time that was not dedicated to painting or writing. There were excursions on the River Avon from Broadway, and it is possible that this study of a young girl reading by a river was painted around this time; but it is much more likely that it was done during subsequent summers, when Sargent was living and working in riverside locations, making experiments with the figure-in-a-landscape and the effects of sunlight and shade on water.
Sargent’s experiments in the mid to late 1880s reflect the Impressionist imperative to paint en plein-air, capturing fleeting light, using a highly-keyed palette and laying on pigment in visible, broken brushstrokes, the aesthetic most closely identified with Claude Monet. Sargent had probably known Monet since around 1876, but their relationship was at its closest in the mid 1880s, when Sargent represented the French master working en plein-air at Giverny in what has become an recognisable image .
Sargent’s three riverside summers began in July 1887 in the Thames Valley, where he spent the week of the Henley Regatta, painting from an improvised studio-boat. The musician George Henschel has left us a vibrant image of the artist at work:
He had built himself a little floating studio on a punt on the river, where it was a delight to see him, a splendid specimen of manly physique, clad — it was an exceptionally hot and dry summer, I remember — in a white flannel shirt and trousers, a silk scarf around the waist, and a small straw hat with coloured ribbon on his large head, sketching away all day, and once in awhile skilfully manipulating the punt to some other coign of vantage’.
In using a studio-boat, Sargent was emulating Monet, who had painted from a bateau-atelier at Argenteuil and then at Vétheuil from around 1873 (see Édouard Manet’s study of Monet painting in his studio boat of 1874, The Barge, Neue Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, and Monet’s own Le Bateau atelier, 1876, Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania). This period marks the highpoint of Sargent’s veneration of Monet. He visited him at Giverny at some point during the summer and purchased two works by him, Bennecourt and Vaques à la Manneporte (he would later acquire two more paintings by Monet). In early July 1888, Sargent rented Calcot Mill, a historic former watermill, on the Holy Brook, a channel of the River Kennet, near Reading. He had just returned from his first and dazzlingly successful professional visit to the United States, but his father was seriously ill and he assembled the family around him at Calcot. The watery environment, overhung with willows, resembled the River Epte at Giverny, and Monet was, very briefly, a visitor there.
In a letter to the American financier and collector, Henry Marquand, written at the beginning of September of that year, Sargent complained about the weather disrupting his painting programme: ‘Very bad for one’s work, if one goes in for out-of-doors things as I have’. The following day, the young American artist, Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890), who had travelled to England to work alongside Sargent, contradicted the latter’s view of his accomplishments. Bunker reported back to the patron and collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) in Boston: ‘Sargent fils is working away at all sorts of things and making experiments without number — he makes them look awfully well — the experiments I mean and is altogether a wonderful being — we are off on the river all day painting’. Sargent’s father died in April 1889, and Sargent rented a large house, Fladbury Rectory on the River Avon, at Pershore in Worcestershire, gathering his family and various friends together for the summer months and continuing to pursue his figurative river scenes. He had seen Monet in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in late Spring and invited him to Fladbury, but there is no indication that Monet accepted the invitation.
Sargent was committed to working en plein-air, but he did not use the river settings of 1887-89 as an opportunity to paint modern life, one of the subjects at the heart of the Impressionist mission. There are none of the regattas, social scenes, railways, bridges and general river life depicted, variously, by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. Sargent now painted principally from the position of the river bank, and his figurative river scenes hovered somewhere between reality and dream. His models either stood by the side of the water, their forms frequently dominating the composition, or they reclined languorously in punts. The atmosphere was one of poetic reverie, at a remove from contemporary, quotidian life.
The present study is undated and the model unidentified. A young girl is represented in profile, seated cross-legged beside a stream, reading a book. Her dress is difficult to pin down, reading more as picturesque costume than as a contemporary garment. There is no horizon to provide context, the picture plane is tipped up so that the water provides the reflective background, and there is a sense created of an enclosed natural space. This is consistent with Sargent’s figure studies of the period, which are usually placed against an aqueous, rather than an aerial, backdrop. The composition exhibits a technical affinity with a small study of Sargent’s sister, Violet, standing on a river bank with a fishing rod in her hand, a preliminary study for Lady Fishing - Mrs Ormond (Tate Britain). The similarity of the broad treatment of the reflections in the water is particularly close.
Girl Seated by a Stream is an important rediscovery and was in the collection of the artist’s friends Wilfrid de Glehn (1870-1951) and his American wife, Jane, née Emmet (1873-1961), who became significant figures in Sargent’s life after their marriage in 1904. They were both artists and, for the following decade, they accompanied Sargent on his painting expeditions to the Italian Alps, Florence, Rome, Frascati, Corfu, Granada and Lake Garda. Sargent and de Glehn often painted the same motif, seated side by side, and the couple were models in a number of Sargent’s pictures. Jane was known for her portrait drawings in sanguine chalk and for her landscapes in oil. Wilfrid, who had studied with Jean-Paul Laurens in Paris and with G.P. Jacomb-Hood in London, painted portraits and subject pictures in a distinctly Sargentesque style.
We are grateful to Elaine Kilmurray, Research Director, John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry. The painting will be included in any published or online addenda to the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné.