Sargent’s Colorful Past

June 12, 2018
1933.49 Palette used by John Singer Sargent, 19th–20th century. Oil on wood. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Francis Ormond in memory of their brother, John Singer Sargent (through Thomas A. Fox, Esq.), 1933.49.

John Singer Sargent was acclaimed for his skill as a portraitist of American high society in the Gilded Age. The Harvard Art Museums hold a famous example of his work: The Breakfast Table, an atmospheric painting featuring his younger sister, Violet.

Few may be aware that our collections also include some of Sargent’s tools and materials—possibly even the very ones used to make the Breakfast Table

A recent article by Georgina Rayner, associate conservation scientist in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and Joyce H. Townsend, senior conservation scientist at Tate Britain, highlights this fascinating group of objects. Published in a Sargent-themed edition of Visual Culture in Britain, “Sargent’s Painting Materials: New Discoveries and Their Implications” is the result of Rayner and Townsend’s close technical studies of Sargent’s many painting palettes in collections in both the United Kingdom and the United States, including one at Harvard. Townsend and Rayner first presented their work during the April 2016 conference Sargentology: New Perspectives on the Works of John Singer Sargent.

“Being able to look at an artist’s materials gives you deep insight into that artist’s practice and the choices he made,” said Rayner. She and Townsend investigated and compared such factors as “palette shape and weight, size and shapes of brushes, suppliers of paint, and even how Sargent mixed the paint,” Rayner said.

The palettes are held in institutions small and large, private and public. Townsend researched and wrote about examples from the United Kingdom, held at Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and in a private collection. Rayner handled the U.S. examples: at the Harvard Art Museums; the Sargent House Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts; the Signet Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Tavern Club in Boston.

The Harvard example is a kidney-shaped palette, which was found in Sargent’s London studio after his death in 1925. It was given to the Fogg Museum by Sargent’s sisters, Emily and Violet. They also donated a number of other painting materials from Sargent’s studio on Columbus Avenue in Boston, such as paintbrushes and a paint box containing numerous tubes of paint. 

  • 1933.49 Besides Sargent’s kidney-shaped palette, the collection includes his paintbrushes and tubes of paint.

  • Some of Sargent’s paint tubes were labeled by hand.

  • One of Sargent’s paint boxes—still containing supplies—is also part of the museums’ collections.

Rayner started her investigation of the Harvard palette and other Sargent palettes in nearby collections by examining them in visible and ultraviolet light. She also closely studied the surface of these objects under a microscope.

She was especially interested in determining how the paint was arranged on the palettes. On all of the stateside palettes except for the Harvard one, the paint was arranged fairly consistently: white, yellow, red, brown, green/blue, and on one occasion, black. However, on the Harvard palette, there appears to be no pattern or organization to the paints.  

“This not only gives us insight into how Sargent worked, but also leads us to ask why ours is so different,” Rayner said. “Was it a palette for scrapings? Or was it an experiment?”

A close-up of Sargent’s palette from the Harvard Art Museums collections.
A close-up of Sargent’s palette from the Harvard Art Museums collections.

Rayner also observed that “brushstrokes, visible all across the palette, contain a myriad of colors—in one stroke it is possible to have red next to blue next to green next to red,” often resulting in a gray hue, which was then mixed with another color. Moreover, she said, “the distortion of the paint mounds, including the act of folding over and the creation of ‘tails,’ suggests a purposeful sweep of the paintbrush through the paint and across the surface”—an indication of the way in which the busy artist may have mixed and applied paint.

Although unable to make any exact conclusions about the purpose of the Harvard palette, Rayner gathered important data on the types of paint Sargent left behind on its surface. By using the technique of X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which provides rapid identification of chemical elements present within certain materials, and by researching pigment technology from Sargent’s time, she was able to identify the pigments he used. She was also able to compare these with Sargent’s paint samples in the Harvard Art Museums collections.

  • Rayner used an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer to identify the chemical elements present on Sargent’s palette.
    of Rayner used an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer to identify the chemical elements present on Sargent’s palette.
  • The palette includes dried paint mounds in many colors.
    of The palette includes dried paint mounds in many colors.
  • Distorted paint mounds offer clues about how Sargent may have used his palette.
    of Distorted paint mounds offer clues about how Sargent may have used his palette.
  • Nearly the entire surface of the palette was covered.
    of Nearly the entire surface of the palette was covered.

Ultimately, Rayner found that Sargent used a number of common pigments, including ultramarine, cobalt blue, chrome yellow, vermilion, and lead white (with or without zinc white). Notably, he also used cobalt violet—a pigment encountered less commonly due to its high cost and weak tinting strength.

“Was it a palette for scrapings? Or was it an experiment?”

The project underscored just how much Sargent relied on a wide selection of high quality natural and man-made pigments. He sourced his materials from a range of local and international suppliers, making practical purchases that were, by and large, local to the city and country where he happened to be working.  

Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center and senior conservation scientist, said he was impressed at how the project provides “a glimpse behind the studio door, to look at the tools that were handled by one of the best portraitists of the time.” He continued: “Many people have a fascination with palettes as abstract works of art in their own right, as a kind of oval window into the artist’s subconscious.”

The study provided a satisfying opportunity to conduct research on little-known pieces in the museums’ collections. And by allowing comparison with similar Sargent palettes held in other institutions, said Rayner, “it was a wonderful opportunity to reunite these objects, if only for a brief time.”