By the end of the nineteenth century, John Singer Sargent was widely regarded as the preeminent American portraitist. His career as a portrait painter, which began in Boston in the late 1880s, elevated him to a position of great recognition and he was afforded the luxury of accepting only a small number of the many commissions requested of him. He painted these portraits with a sense of confidence, and from a unique source of inspiration. The artist, however seemed to be growing weary of portraiture. It seemed as though Sargent felt that there was little else to accomplish, and more importantly, little else to learn from this genre that would enable him to grow and expand his artistic skills and horizons.
In 1907 Sargent commented that "a portrait is a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth" and he seemed ready to abandon portraiture, which he did almost entirely by 1909. These few years (1907-1910) were a period of enormous growth for Sargent, and they invite us to investigate one of the artist's most rapid and interesting transformations, from portraitist to landscape painter. In the years that followed, the figure, which for twenty years had been the focal point of his paintings, became a secondary subject. Landscape overtook the dominant role in his works and figures were modified to become abstract components in his compositions.
In The Moraine, painted in 1908 at Purtud in the Alps of Italy, Sargent luxuriates in the play of light over glacial boulders, casting the foreground in brilliant relief with a sharply angled light. The glacier itself, having retreated up the valley, is visible in the shadows at the top left of the painting. Carefully observing the quality of the light, Sargent dashes gold tones of paint across the canvas, creating the impression of working rapidly in fading light.
The artist's lifelong fascination with rocks--whether in the Alps or in the Rocky Mountains, on the Jetties of Lake Garda or the quarries of Carrara--is manifest in this oil painting, as the artists' love of stone is revealed in his attention to the tumbled shapes of these sun-baked rocks. Overall, the composition is suffused with brilliant Italian light, and unified by a subtle palette of warm highlights and tones of blue in the shadows.
With its virtuoso brushwork and luminous color, The Moraine captures the qualities which have come to define Sargent's achievement in his late landscapes. Indeed, it closely relates to another late oil, Val d'Aosta (Brooklyn Museum of Art) depicting rocks in a stream and even more closely to a watercolor of about 1904 entitled Bed of a Glacial Torrent (Royal Watercolor Society). When Sargent was elected in 1908 to the Royal Watercolor Society, he presented this later watercolor as his diploma painting. As noted by Barbara Gallati, "it is instructive to consider the nature of the watercolor Sargent chose to represent him for posterity for, more than any of the watercolors he displayed at this time, it signals the larger aesthetic concerns then emerging in his oils in its demonstration of the workings of a more abstract vision It's close-up horizonless view of the rocky stream bed was likely a product of his first summer stay at Purtud in the Val d'Aosta in 1904, and looks forward to an important series of oils featuring a similarly abstract approach to a landscape subject (e.g. Val d'Aosta). This example of new imagery appearing first in watercolor before being 'serialized' in oil helps to elucidate the role of watercolor in Sargent's process in constructing a body of work outside portraiture. Rather than uniformly treating watercolors as preparatory studies, it seems that Sargent took advantage of the psychological freedoms offered by watercolor to explore more radical compositions. If he observed them to be successful in finished watercolors, he then pursued the same motifs in oil." (B. Gallati, Masters of Color and Light, Brooklyn, New York, 1998, pp. 125-6).
As one of Sargent's finest realizations of his abstracted landscapes, The Moraine ranks as a monument to his achievement outside of his brilliant oeuvre of portraiture and establishes his work at the end of his career as among the most innovative of his day.
This work will be included in the forthcoming John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonn by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff.