Greg Cartmell

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait Painting Hatred

I hate to paint portraits?!?!? A famous quote by John Singer Sargent, “I hate to paint portraits! I hope never to paint another portrait in my life. Portraiture may be all right for a man in his youth, but after forty I believe that manual dexterity deserts one, and, besides, the color-sense is less acute. Youth can better stand the exactions of a personal kind that are inseparable from portraiture. I have had enough of it.”

Copyright: John Singer Sargent

This is a quote I LOVE to hate. I can totally relate to this quote because portrait painting can be tiring and frustrating due to the perfectionism involved. When I paint portraits they must be absolutely perfect to my eyes, to my commissioning client’s eyes, and to the portrait sitter’s eyes.It takes the total immersion of one’s self to pull it off.

As a reader you might wonder, has this feeling of “being over it” come over me. Has this ever happened to me in my life as an artist? I would be lying if I said no but only for temporary periods of frustrations. I still have the gift as a portrait painter and still have the passion it takes to pull it off. Over the past 50 years as a portrait artist, I have painted over 2,000 portraits.

I was told by my early mentors, “If you want to be a successful, accomplished portrait painter you need to paint 1,000 heads.” I took their advice and painted 1,000 heads. It took me 3 years to complete them. After that, I started painting portraits professionally and have painted over 1,000 and still counting. These are often done as commissioned pieces and they take a great deal of time to complete.

While visiting New York, I could not resist going to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art to study one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings Portrait of Madame X. It is a large full-length portrait. The story has it that he actually convinced the husband to paint his wife and the full-length portrait did not go over as well as the artist planned at the show. However, Sargent considered it his best painting. It was and is considered a grandiose portrait painting. I often spend lots of time studying John Singer Sargent’s portraits. Each time learning something new. This particular portrait focuses on the play of opposition.

Full portrait paintings take at LEAST 80 hours to paint. Now, that is passion and commitment! It demands the artists’ full attention to details, clothing, hair, face, posture, body, and the ability to capture the sitter’s character and personality. I am currently working on two full-length grandiose paintings for two of my private collectors. In these particular portraits, I am taking what I have learned from John Singer Sargent and implementing the play of opposition.

It is so difficult to really categorize John Singer Sargent as an artist. Not only was he a master at portrait painting, he also painted murals, landscapes and was a plein air painter. He worked in oils and watercolors. These are all areas of interest to me. I use every medium and relish the times I can paint plein air with my dear artist’s friends. With that in mind, I plan on taking a road trip to New Orleans for some plein air painting. It is a city bubbling with inspiration for artists.

I love everything about New Orleans, Louisiana: food, wine, music, art and the people. I have so many memories and good friends that live there. My good friend Frank owns an italian restaurant there. Here’s a blog post on that NOLA trip.  Every time I travel to New Orleans. I make time to go to the New Orleans Museum of Art to see the art exhibits and to study the old masters. John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Mrs. Asher B. Wertheimer is one I always take time to study.

After studying this portrait and Portrait of Madame X, I understand exactly what he meant by his quote. He painted a full-length portrait of Mr. Wertheimer and another of Mrs. Wertheimer. Then, Mr. Wertheimer commissioned him to paint every person in his family 12 more portraits. It took him 10 years to complete all the portraits. He complained of having “chronic Wertheimer.”

I can relate to the chronic syndrome he suffered from but like John Singer Sargent I must get back to portrait painting.

Collect original art, be creative, and paint with the most passion possible…

Afterall, what more is there to do!