JOHN SINGER SARGENT: Painting Alla Prima, Wet in Wet Oil Painting

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood John Singer Sargent
OIl on Canvas Tate  Briton, London

Alla Prima, Single - Session Method of Painting. Paintings catching the immediacy of a scene.

The Art:   Alla prima is a “direct painting”; we can say that it is a “wet on wet” oil painting. The word ‘Alla Prima’ literally means ‘at first’, if we look at the Italian dictionary for reference. While painting Alla prima, an artist completes the entire painting in one or two sessions and does not wait for the drying of the paint layers. It is almost like the wet-in-wet technique as in watercolour. Master artist Vincent Van Gogh used this technique extensively. He mostly completed a painting in one session. Unlike the impasto technique, in Alla Prima, the thick colours are not applied. However, the colours get mixed on canvass, as the painting is to be done in one or two sessions.

In the above painting, Sargent has used the alla prima method and accomplished the painting within one session. Such a method produces the most remarkable work because of its nonstop and authoritative nature. In this painting, another great artist Claude Monet is shown painting by the edge of a wood. Sargent had visited Monet in the year 1887, at Giverny, France. He was very much impressed by the impressionist style of paintings Monet practised.

In this painting, Sargent has depicted Monet's peculiar style of painting. It is also noticeable. If we look at the large paintings done by Monet, we can feel that he painted figures in those painting as if they are part of the landscape itself. That was the beauty of the art.

Morning Walk Oil on Canvas John Singer Sargent
The model is the painter's sister, Violet.

Alla Prima: Under this technique, an artist would use the concept of immediacy. No waiting and no alteration in the painting. That is the principle. It would be just a raw presentation of the artistic wave that would be present in the mind of an artist. These raw and rough sketches, born on the spot in the heat of inspiration, express the ideas floating in the mind of their author. 

Alla prima technique would not allow any modifying effort on the side of an artist. It would not provide any room for hindering the liveliness of those artists who do not know where to stop painting or working on a canvas. Unlike the normal procedure, while using oil paint, to apply one layer of paint and then wait for its drying, the Alla Prima artist would finish a painting in one session; he or she would not allow the colours to dry on the canvas. 

Sargent and Monet were close friends. His painting Morning painted in 1886 resembled Monet's painting titled Woman with a Parasol. Here in this painting, Sargent had applied impressionist style with his typical Alla Prima technique. Look at the strength of the brush strokes applied on the clothes of the lady painted. The background landscape is a masterly composition of cool and bright colours. This painting looks more appealing because, in addition to being an impressionist artist, Sargent was a master portrait painter, too. He had used both of his prowess in this painting.

John Singer Sargent
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1864 - 1932)
Oil on Canvas  
Scottish National Gallery

Though introduced by Flemish painter Frans Hals (c.1582-1666), alla prima took its flight in the era of impressionism. This technique suited impressionist artists very much, as their prime focus was on catching the soul of a scene they would paint. During the nineteenth century, many artists prefer to paint using the alla prima technique. When these impressionist artists paint out of the doors, the same set of principles of painting would be practised. But while working in alla prima or wet in wet oil painting, it would be hard to sort out the chaos of colours. It would not be an easy task to keep their tonal values ideally maintained. But the impressionist artists were known to maintaining a fine balance in their painting.

The Artists: Impressionist artist like John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet wanted to retain the feelings that would come as they painted. Here in this painting, John Singer Sargent had caught the immediacy of his friend Monet painting a lady. The artist’s emphasis was on retaining the freshness and spontaneity of the scene and feel the characters in the frame were experiencing at the very moment. This was the subject Sargent had in mind while doing this painting; here he had caught the immediate visual impression and reflected the light through his small brush strokes.

In this portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, we can see how the artist has tried depicting every gesture of the woman portrayed. Look at the position of the left hand, resting on the sidebar of the chair. Such a precision on the part of the artist would show how comfortable the model was feeling herself while sitting before the artist. 

Ponte della Canonica John Singer Sargen 
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Sargent mostly drew and painted from live sources, from live objects. He rarely used photographs. While painting, Sargent would fix his wooden easel in a way that he could see the model and the painting from a distance. He would have preferred seeing the model and the canvas in the same intensity of light. Look at this painting of a street in Venice.  John Singer Sergent was very much impressed by the beauty of the city of Venice. During his visit to Venice (1903-1907), It is believed that he had painted this while sitting in a gondola. It must be an interesting event for an artist like Sargent. To paint live, while travelling in a boat in the Venice canal. This painting is presently displayed at  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It is believed that the collector  Isabella Stewart Gardner was also fascinated by the beauty of the city of Venice. So she purchased this painting done by Sargent. Sargent had done a couple of portrait paintings of Isabella Stewart Gardner, too. Sargent was used to walking frequently up to the place the model sat and again would concentrate on his canvas. He would inspect the model and the painting in its totality. That was his masterly habit. This made his portraits very lively and impressive. Venice has attracted many artists. Sargent was one of them. he had painted several paintings of the streets of Venice, some of them are oil on canvas, and some of them are in watercolour on paper.

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