A recent sale from my Etsy store: 'Droids in Garden', a forey into impressionism-meets-sci-fi-fan-art...
Friday 1 April 2022
I have been sorting through my paper clutter, and found this old essay, which is a a painting by Sargent. I also found, online, this nifty site for converting scanned writing into editable text,
so have slightly edited it to reproduce here:
Art 105. VISUAL CULTURE
CRITIQUE- THE SULPHUR MATCH
(John Singer Sargent).
‘The Sulphur Match’, by John Singer Sargent, is executed in oil, on canvas, and measures 58.4 cm by 41.3 cm. The painting was completed in 1882, in Venice, six years before the Jack the Ripper murders. I mention the letter, because the scene is somehow reminiscent of the milieu created around the Whitehall fiend. Quite clearly, there can be no connection, however, the atmosphere of threat and the degenerate undertone is striking. (I do not mean to imply that Sargent is a Ripper suspect, even if he was in London at the time, but I digress).
The paint appears to have been briskly applied, to achieve a fairly quick impression of the scene, rather than a photographic representation. The painting features an olive skinned, dark hared, youngish woman in a white dress. About her shoulders is a red shawl, and she is leaning back on the hind two legs of a wooden chair, against a smoke-grey wall. Her hair is tied up, but not neatly, and the loose strands of her hair suggest informality. She appears to be in conversation with a dark cloaked man, in who lurks in a corner filled with shadows. He is using the eponymous 'Sulphur Match' to light his cheroot cigar.
Sargent caught the tail end of Impressionism, being somewhat younger than Manet, with whom he painted. The influences of this style are noticeable in ‘The Sulphur Match’, particularly around the woman's hastily rendered stockings and shoes. There appears to be a discarded bottle of chianti in the bottom corner, to her left, and shards of broken glass on the floor nearby. Alternatively, these could be pieces of fruit peel. Both possibilities would have symbolic meaning- glass for the extreme abandonment of drunkenness. Fruit, on the other hand, also has symbolic meaning, being used as a reference to passion.
The title presents a possible intended double meaning. ‘The Sulphur Match’ on the surface of it, refers to the match with which the man lights his cheroot. Sulphur, however, relates also to Hell, and ‘Match’ could mean the union between the odd couple. I.e. a sinful union that can only lead to mutual damnation. The milieu looks forward to what would become the dark and sinister beast of Fin-de-seicle art, crackling as it was with a slightly subversive sexual undertone.
The style is by no means classical, having a somewhat sketchy quality. However, it does not demonstrate the Manet- like broken application of paint or high key of colour, that featured in Sargent's more typically impressionistic works.
Although quite obviously taken from observation, (as can be seen taken for a near certainty, basing this deduction on impressionistic, sketchy nature, the unusual lighting, and the fact that the painting is alive with the atmosphere of the moment) there is also symbolism present. For example, the colours probably have meanings. The white of the woman's dress refers to purity, but it is not a very pure white. The red of her shawl suggests prostitution, for the colour has long been identified with the oldest trade, by the church, amongst others. Whereas in religious art, the Blessed Virgin is traditionally depicted in White and blue, Mary Magdalene, according to lore a reformed harlot, was always shown clad in red. As was the whore was Babylon. In Art, Red is identified with passion and seduction, relating to blood and wine. Rembrandt painted his Delilah in red also. The blackness of the man's apparel, and the shadows he broods in, suggest the evil realm into which his heady companion is in the process of being lured. Seemingly, she is drunk, and being used in some ungracious way. She is either a harlot being solicited, or a naive girl being seduced by the promises of a pimp. The feel of persuasion or seduction into danger is definitely present.
This is a departure from the sort of painting other Artist were inspired to create whilst in Venice. Sargent's predecessors produced copious panoramas of St Marks Square, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Grand Canal. It was the cityscape that invariably inspired the others. Although he felt moved to do a number of fine architectural studies, mostly in water-colour, Sargent seems to have been more interested in the life of the city, young people, (his own generation) and their (often sordid) encounters in the shadows.
The painted woman could be simply a loose woman being seduced, or a whore being solicited. The man could be either a pimp, or a client. Having said that they could be a perfectly decent married couple, there is no completely damning evidence, only circumstantial devices which seem to be symbolic. The location could be a cafe bar, or a brothel, or in a dusky courtyard.
The painting featured in a substantial and impressive exhibition of the artist's work, held at the Tate in 1998/9. It was one of many loaned from other galleries, and private collections. This particular one being the property of Mr and Mrs Hugh Half Jr. It could there be contrasted with the other paintings produced by the prolific artist. The range of different types of paintings he did was wide, and eclectic in terms of style, size and content. They ranged in style from classical to impressionistic. They ranged in theme from society portraits, to paintings of children, to the monumental war commemoration 'Gassed,' a famous huge and awesome piece, showing a line of mustard-gas-blinded soldiers, leading each other, whilst twisted dead and wounded bodies writhe like the damned in the foreground. There were also examples of religious work, and of symbolist themes such as Egyptian deities, and the Mesopotamian goddesses (related to Sargent’s masterwork, the murals on the subject of ‘The Triumph of Religion’ at the Boston Public Library). Influences ranged from the Renaissance, to the Impressionists, to Fin-de-siecle symbolism. Subtlety, quality and tastefulness are generally consistent throughout, however, though some were thought daring at the time.
Like the others, ‘The Sulphur Match’ painting shows his gift for capturing naturalistic poses. It lacks the striking elegance of some larger paintings;- including portraits like the sumptuous and elegant 'Madame X' (a portrait of Madame Gautreau), or the handsome, Saturnine 'Dr Pozzi at home.' Placed together, the couple ooze power, and as much dark grandeur as Lucifer and his chosen consort. Both paintings are tall and perpendicular, and I found them the most captivating.
Sargent was born in Italy, to American parents. He studied in Paris, exhibiting his portraits in the Salon. These demonstrated his admiration for old masters such as Valazquez and Frans Hals, who's work he studied in Madrid and Haarlem.
By the early 1880s, he had come close in style, to his associate, the impressionist Edouard Manet. His portraits, meanwhile, grew ever more daring. 'Madame X' caused a scandal contributing to Sargent's reasons for moving to London, when he was thirty. Edwardian society flocked to his studio in Tite Street, Chelsea, to sit for their portraits, for which his reputation was unrivalled. Sargent had yet to win renown as a portrait painter on both sides of the Atlantic, by the time he painted ‘The Sulphur Match’. It was finished four years prior to his move to London.
His society portraits have been called 'at once flattering, penetrating and brilliantly executed'. I see no reason why an artist should not flatter his sitters. We have photographers to record reality. It is these surviving photographs which serve to disillusion the viewer of the women; effulgent and beautiful in paint, somewhat duller and plainer in snapshot. Artists should feel no compulsion to inhabit the mundane and imperfect real world. Sargent's paintings conveyed the grandeur his sitters aspired to in a way that a photographer might find it difficult to emulate. These paintings tell more about humanity than many photographs.
However, as The Sulphur Match' is no commissioned portrait, there is little evidence that he flattered the people in it. He may simply have exaggerated the atmosphere the personalities created. It captures another facet of human nature, albeit one altogether less virtuous. It falls into the category of paintings featuring natives of rustic or exotic places, that Sargent liked. His earlier Capri paintings touched on similar themes, and also demonstrate his taste for unusual viewpoints and poses. His venetian paintings have been called a high point of his early career. The exotic location of Venice was one of many Sargent visited. Egypt, Spain, and the Mediterranean islands also enchanted him.
Returning to the composition of 'The Sulphur Match', it is noticeable that the tone of the grey background is lighter behind the woman, and blends ever darker as it nears the man. Sargent had a gift at rendering tones of flesh and folds in material, so as they read as the genuine article, with great economy of brush strokes. Detail is lost, rather than gained, the nearer the viewer moves towards the painting. Such is observable in the fall of this woman's rippling dress from her knees, the shape of which forms the centre piece. It is also noticeable in the depth of the darkness behind her ankles. The very fact that she shows her ankles is a very symbolic sign of how far her morals and self control have lapsed. That she swings back, and that her balance is precarious, may also be symbolic. It not only gives the piece tension in its potential movement- it represents the fact that she could, morally and spiritually- swing either way, back into the light, or farther, and irretrievably into the stygian darkness. The fact that her face falls into shadow suggests the latter as the most likely outcome. There is a balance, but it is tense and volatile, a balance on a knife edge, perhaps. The actual morality is ambiguous, perhaps ambivalent. The artist did not seem to care about whether the girl succumbed to the darkness, or whether she was saved. He simply presented her situation with professional detachment. This is by no means a typical treatment of his subjects, by Sargent.
The heads of the two are balanced, position wise, on a level with one another, and equidistant from the centre. In other ways, the two figures are poles apart. The man is darkness, she is light. He broods like a heavy rain cloud, she drifts light and airy (if indelicately) in her apparent drunkenness. These forces are totally at odds, but balance each other because they are of equal strength and energy.
Interpretation wise- the painting is both a recording of a scene, and, from a deeper point of view, the atmosphere associated with that scene. It can also be read, I believe, as an allegory of temptation into evil. I can appreciate it's merits as a purveyor of an impression. I also quite like it, though not as much as some of his other paintings. My favourite is the portrait of Dr Pozzi, followed by 'Madame X', and ‘Carnation, Lilly, Lilly Rose’, (which is of two little girls holding truly fluorescent lanterns). All for different reasons.
However, there is little of the light spirited, yet intense innocence of the latter painting in 'The Sulphur Match'. It's whole execution, it's whole en-semble, is dark and corrupted. It also lacks the theatrical stateliness of 'Madame X', or the vibrant cultivated glory of 'Dr Pozzi At Home'. It shares with them, however, the fact that it's aesthetic strength lies largely in the simplicity of the composition and the ingenuity of the forms.
Sargent visited America in 1887-8 and 1889-90, already famous, he produced more fine portraits, including Henry James's and John D Rockerfeller's.
His latter years he did more water colours, of (often exotic) landscapes. He also painted several renaissance style murals, some symbolist themes, and some religious works, which are surprisingly merit-worthy, if not always terribly original, harping back as they did to bygone ages. However, his final glory, the poignant First World War memento 'Gassed', has become one of the enduring archetypal images of the tragic twentieth century. Sargent died in 1925, aged sixty-nine.
Sources: Tate Gallery
Exhibition Guide Sargent at the
Thursday 30 October 2014
Some points- four thicknesses of thread/chord/string were used, the thickest (string) for the diagonal bracers between the main and fore mast, and the fore and mizzen. The next thickest was for the uprights of the 'shrouds', running from the deadeyes (the round blocks with three holes in) towards the platforms on the masts. The second thinnest cord is used nearly everything else (including the looping laniards between the rows of deadeyes, except the horizontals on the shrouds and the connecting pieces on the foot walks, which are done in fine thread.
There are useful tutorials on youtube for rigging deadeyes. For example:
I ended up rejecting the shelf pieces with the pins on, (on the deck at the base of the masts) because they are out of scale, and replacing these with small shelves with supporting posts made of matchsticks, and dots drawn on instead of fine drilled holes for the pins.
The deadeyes I originally got were really too big and out of scale, but it would have been too tricky to replace them. Got some smaller (70mm) ones for the upper platforms, though. Some pulley blocks also came with the original deadeyes, but these were also over-sized, so I ended up making smaller ones out of DAS clay, each about the size of a rice crispy. These are slightly flattened, with a groove carved in across the wide end for the chord to tie around that attaches them to the yard arms. They have a hole pierced therough the flatter section, offset to one end, with grooves running up from it to accommodate the chord that passes through.
I bought 3mm thick dowel to use for the yardarms. Really these should have a taper on them, being thickest in the centre, but never mind. The bits extending back from the mizzen mast, the spanker gaff and spanker boom as they are called, are attached to the mast by strips of card, one on either side, forming a shape at the end like a tuning fork, and tied on with chord.
The chords used as rigging are all waxed by running them along a candle. Since I decided upon all black rigging, I had to dye the chords that were originally white.
Monday 1 September 2014
I used to make a lot of cardboard ships when I was little, but they were not very authentic, since the bottom was made out of one flat piece and the sides of the hull also being one piece each, so there was none of the contour. Still the main material this time around is the same, namely corrugated cardboard.
A good detailed model ship can cost hundreds of pounds, but (in the spirit of Napoleonic prisoners of war, who made models from bone and hair, I thought I would try to make a convincing model with virtually no financial outlay, using rather stuff that was to hand.
The first step was to trace the blueprint, below.
The card profiles cut out from the templates were slotted into the cut-out hull shape at appropriate intervals, fortunately marked on the blueprint. Space was allowed for the dip in the section of deck addded to keep the structure rigid. The dipped section will form the bit of the gun-deck that will be visible through the opening and hatches on the top deck (weather deck) when that is added. Making a model ship, by the way, is a good way to pick up some nautical terminology. The photo above also shows some of the templates for the ribs.
The frigate appears to have only a single flat deck on top, without a poop deck. Again using a template from the blueprint, a piece of card was cut out for the upper deck (actually I made two, so that there was one to practice with). Also seen here are some experimental stairways made from strips of thick card (mountboard, about 2mm thick) glued together. The piece of card below the piece forming the stair tread is set a little back from the one above.
I also made a temporary cardboard stand for the model to use while I am working on it. A wooden one will come later.
Here can be seen the hatch holes cut in the weather deck. They are edged with strips of mountboard. The strips across the hach are (if memory serves) double-thicknesses of mountboard. The tracing of the blueprint is also visible here, useful to compare the model to as it progresses.