The Piazza; On the Verandah, a depiction of serene and genteel family leisure, features Sargent’s close friend, the painter Dwight Blaney, at his Ironbound Island home with his wife and daughters. For Sargent, his friend’s home in Maine would become a place of rest and tranquility in his later years, providing ample subject matter and, as evidenced by the memoirs of Blaney’s daughter Elizabeth, pleasant and agreeable company. Elizabeth recalls, “He loved the peacefulness of Ironbound, and the good food my mother put on the table. My father admired him greatly, and they had a very good time together…” (The Memoirs of Elizabeth Hill Blaney Cram, privately printed, 1992, p. 69) Sargent produced several works at Ironbound, including an oil portrait of Dwight Blaney sketching a landscape (The Artist Sketching, 1922, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island). Of the present group portrait Elizabeth writes, “Mr. Sargent himself also painted in watercolors at Ironbound. One was of Father, Mother, Meg and me sitting on the veranda after lunch. Meg is knitting, I am sitting on the steps, Father is lounging in a chair, smoking, and somehow Mother looks like the piano tuner!" (The Memoirs of Elizabeth Hill Blaney Cram, p. 70)
“The [Ironbound] pictures were Sargent at his least formal," Lloyd Goodrich explains, "far more sympathetic, both humanly and artistically, than his commissioned portraits of the rich and fashionable. They showed the visual freshness, the infallible eye and unerring hand that were Sargent’s most attractive gifts.” (“The Sea and the Land, 1865-1914,” in G.A. Mellon, E.F. Wilder, eds., Maine and its Role in American Art, 1840-1963, New York, 1963, p. 116) Indeed it is the absence of formality, particularly in the posture of Blaney, that lends charm to the present work. The figures, portrayed in various states of contented repose and quiet domestic activity, reveal Sargent’s masterful handling of watercolor and his adept compositional abilities.
Sargent’s employment of watercolor evolved throughout his career, developing gradually as he gained confidence with the medium. While his earlier watercolors betray a cautious and somewhat restrained execution, his later pieces demonstrate a more lively and easy brushstroke. Donelson Hoopes writes, “Watercolor seemed to release him from constraints about pictorial ‘manners’; since most of his output was not intended for exhibition, he may have had fewer reservations about ‘letting go’ than was possible with the things he put before the public or a client. Many of his best watercolors became gifts to friends and to members of his family—often inscribed with a brief dedication.” (D.F. Hoopes, Sargent Watercolors, New York, 1970, p. 19.) The present work’s dedication “For my friend Dwight Blaney” at the lower left of the composition reveals Sargent’s affection for the family and the informal nature of the work. Sargent’s handling of watercolor in the picture underscores the maturity of his skill and relaxed manner of production.
An intimate view into the lives of his friends, Sargent’s painting also reflects his own deep affection for Ironbound. A mere two days following one of his Maine visits, Sargent wrote in a letter to Mrs. Blaney, “St. Vitas dance has begun, and at this moment I hear the telephone planning more things…[the prospect of which] makes me homesick for Ironbound…[it] will be a long time before I forget the phenomenon of enjoying a place, a family, and things that happen, all of the right sort--and I will keep before me the hope of doing it again.” (as quoted in R. Ormond, E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, vol. III, New Haven, Connecticut, 2003, p. 249)
In addition to Sargent, Blaney’s Ironbound home inspired numerous other artistic visitors, including John Leslie Breck (see Lot 20) and Childe Hassam (see Lot 25).