When I hear the word “harmony,” my usual thoughts are about music, but today, as I consider the nature of harmony, my mind shifts to painters, like John Singer Sargent–painters who have excelled in depicting visual harmony. In my opinion, Sargent’s mastery is no better realized than in his depictions of things that are white, and in this post, I’ll share with you some of my favorite of Sargent’s white paintings.

Artistically speaking, white is not a color. We only see white as it is reflected upon and shaded by other colors. Hence, in painting whites, Sargent painted delicious but subtle values. It is safe to say that John Singer Sargent was a master of capturing value and he is a past master or a virtuoso of capturing light or luminosity.

La Biancheria [Linen Sheets – John Singer Sargent

“Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire.”  ―John Singer Sargent


Man Seated by a Stream – John Singer Sargent

In the above painting, you see the way that Sargent used ochres in the highlighted areas and blues in shade.

Tent in the Rockies – John Singer Sargent

I recently saw an exhibition that included Sargent’s painting Tent in the Rockies, and that piece took my breath away. This reproduction doesn’t come close to Sargent’s mastery of light in that painting. The fabric of Sargent’s tent fabric shimmers, and the powdery blue shadows on the birch tree poles are suggested flawlessly.

Workmen – John Singer Sargent

Boats – Venice – John Singer Sargent

Boy on a Rock – John Singer Sargent

Brook Among Rocks – John Singer Sargent

Cashmere Shawl – John Singer Sargent

Corfu – John Singer Sargent

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living. I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.”
― Henri Poincaré, Science and Method

Egyptian Water Jars -John Singer Sargent

Escutcheon of Charles V

Facade of a Palazzo – John Singer Sargent

Feet of an Arab – John Singer Sargent

Sargent seems to paint most of his watercolor shadows in  transparent tones of either raw sienna, burnt sienna, or blue. I am not sure what his exact watercolor palette was, but I found a list of the colors that Sargent used for oil painting Here:

On the right are modern colors one could use.

This is from the book, “The Technique of Portrait Painting” by Harrington Mann, J.B.

1.  Blanc d’ Argent                                                             1.  Permalba White

2.  Pale Chrome                                                                  2.  Cadmium Yellow Light

3.  Transparent Gold Ochre                                         3.  Transparent Gold Ochre

4.  Chinese Vermillion                                                      4.  Cadmium Red Light

5.  Venetian Red                                                                 5.  Venetian Red

6.  Chrome Orange                                                            6.  Cadmium Orange

7.  Burnt Sienna                                                                  7.  Burnt Sienna

8.  Raw Umber                                                                     8.  Raw Umber

9.  Garance Fronce                                                            9.  Rose Madder or Perm Alizarin Crimson

10.  Viridian                                                                          10-14.  same as old name

11.  Cobalt Blue

12.  Fr Ultramarine Blue

13.  Ivory Black

14.  Cobalt Violet

The Conservation Dept of Tate Britain, London also discovered Mars Yellow,

Emerald Green, Sienna, Mars Brown, Red Lead, Cerulean.   The dark backgrounds were often a mixture

of ivory black, mars brown, and lot of medium mixed from stand oil and turpentine.

Poppies – John Singer Sargent – Oil

Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.― Wassily Kandinsky

I don’t ant to end this post suggesting that Sargent could only paint in white. John Singer Sargent was a prolific painter, and his colorful pieces are also brilliant. I guess it is because my own paintings are very colorful that I feel the need to focus today on Sargent’s paintings of white. In my opinion, Sargent’s whites are the essence of harmony. I hope to learn something of the way that John Singer Sargent played with the entirety of his instrument–the way that he painted both colors and whites.

“In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.”― Vincent van Gogh

©Jacki Kellum July 23, 2017

See My Review of John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer in the Exhibition of American Watercolor  http://jackikellum.com/john-singer-sargents-luminous-watercolors-and-winslow-homers-painted-stories-a-discussion-of-the-exhibition-american-watercolor-at-the-philadelphia-museum-of-art/