John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents. He showed a precocious gift for painting and drawing that his mother encouraged, arranging for him to study with some of the finest teachers on the Continent. Although Sargent continued to live abroad, he befriended a number of American artists and exerted his presence in the States through exhibitions and intermittent visits. By 1893 he was among the most acclaimed society portraitists in England and America, yet he also found time to dedicate himself to landscape subjects and mural commissions. An inveterate traveler, Sargent never set down his brush as he journeyed throughout Europe, the Near East, and North America. He worked as an official war artist for the British during World War I, documenting events at the front line in France.
Miss Cara Burch (1878-1961), which owes a formal debt to Diego Velásquez, demonstrates Sargent’s ability to capture the qualities of his sitter. Caroline (“Cara”) Van Cott Burch was the daughter of Robert A. Burch, managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and his wife, the former Lizette Montmollin. She was named after her aunt Caroline Montmollin Sargent, whose husband, Dr. Gorham Parsons Sargent, was the artist’s uncle. Sargent, who doubtlessly agreed to the commission because of the family connection, painted the portrait on Fifty-Seventh Street during one of his many visits to New York. Miss Burch sat for him seven times. Sargent found the girl difficult and she, in turn, was bored by the experience. Neither considered the picture a success yet critics today praise it as among his most revealing portraits of children.
Tarragona was executed as part of a twenty-three-year project awarded to Sargent by the Boston Public Library to create a series of murals depicting the history of religion. Works such as Tarragona provided him with a visual encyclopedia to which he could refer during the project. Sargent was fascinated by the ways artists and architects of the past had solved the problems of two- and three-dimensional design in ecclesiastical buildings. This watercolor illustrates a section of the west portal of Tarragona Cathedral (constructed from 1331-75) located in the northeastern region of Spanish Catalonia.
In this painting, Sargent employed a monochromatic palette of brown, with subtle accents of violet, blue, green, yellow, and orange. He almost completely covered the sheet with pigment, first sketching the structural lines of the cathedral in pencil, then applying thin washes of color, and finally reinforcing the architectural details of the façade with strokes of thicker, more concentrated paint. He suggested shadows in violet which cover the faces of the saints and apostles under the Gothic canopy. Sargent’s reliance on photography for such compositional arrangements is confirmed by his ownership of a contemporary photograph by Frenchman Jean Laurent taken from a similar vantage point. Renowned primarily for his oil portraits, Sargent moved away from that means of expression after 1900 to watercolors and informal landscape and figure painting.
What do you think of the two artworks? Can you tell that they are by the same artist? Why or why not? Which one of the two do you prefer? What other paintings by Sargent can you think of? What is Cara thinking? How does Sargent show her inner thoughts?