Painted in the village of Broadway in the Costwolds in the winter of 1886 while visiting with his friends and fellow American artists Francis David Millet and Edwin Austin Abbey, A Country Road in Winter is a dazzling example of Sargent's experimentation with Impressionist techniques. Sargent had recently left Paris in the wake of the scandal surrounding Madame X, and he travelled to England where he could reassess his career and consider future plans. In the comfortable setting of Broadway, away from the critics of Paris and London, Sargent was free to pursue his painting, experimenting with unusual compositions and recording the effects of light on the rural landscape.
Sargent's working method at Broadway was unusual for its day, and was a continuation of methods he had practiced while painting in Nice two years earlier. According to Sargent's friend Edmund Gosse, the artist "was accustomed to emerge, carrying a large easel, to advance a little way into the open, and then suddenly to plant himself down nowhere in particular, behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field...his object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision without the slightest previous 'arrangement' of detail, the painter's business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever it may be..." (E. Charteris, John Sargent, London, England, 1927, p. 77)
Sargent's fascination with the effects of light was the result, in part, of his relationship with Claude Monet, whom he seems to have met as early as 1876 at the second Impressionist exhibition in Paris. As Marc Simpson has noted, Sargent's landscapes painted at Broadway reveal the influence of Monet's landscapes of Giverny, such as Pré à Giverny of 1885 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts), which Sargent had seen while visiting Monet in France (Reconstructing the Golden Age: American Artists in Broadway, Worcestershire, 1885 to 1889, Ph. D. diss., Yale University, 1993, pp. 316-317) In A Country Road in Winter, Sargent luxuriates in the effects of daylight, carefully observing and capturing its subtleties at a particular moment. 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.
The spontaneous landscapes that Sargent painted during his leisure time were created solely for his own pleasure, as he began to grow tired of doing "mugs" and "paughtraits." In what must have been a wonderful respite from the rigors of portrait painting, plein air works such as A Country Road in Winter afforded Sargent the opportunity to explore more experimental effects of light and perspective. The rich and subtle gradations of light, tone and texture give a sense of both volume and enclosure to the foreground, while the countryside off to the left remains bathed in sunlight. Here, Sargent is clearly interested in the formal aspects of painting, the Impressionistic landscape woven from acute perceptions of light and color in quick, broad brushstrokes.
A Country Road in Winter retains its original Stanford White frame. A famous American architect of the late nineteenth century, White custom designed frames for his many artist friends, including Sargent, Abbott Thayer, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. The highly detailed grill pattern evident in this design is classic Stanford White, both refined and elegant. The smooth, clean surface of the inner band was crafted to reflect light onto the surface of the work, complimenting and heightening Sargent's own experimentation with light effects.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff.