Ahh, Sargent. John Singer Sargent seems a perennial favorite of painters and non-painters alike. At his best, he combines the eye of a poet, the technique of a magician, and the freshness of vision of one newly arrived from outer space.
The subject of the interior goes back to the earliest 15th century Dutch and Flemish masters, such as Van Eyck, who were the first to explore the full potential of oil paint for realistic painting. Most often there’s a figure or two, but not always. Sometimes we only get telling details that suggest the human presence, as in “View of an Interior” by Samuel van Hoogstraten (c.1655-62), aka “The Slippers.”
Paintings like van Hoogstraten’s fall into the “genre” tradition of depicting everyday life subject matter. Such domestic interiors present the viewer with a delightful array of colors, shapes, and, as often in the case of Dutch painting, playfully semi-symbolic details and clues to an unspoken narrative.
In van Hoogstraten’s painting, the title, “The Slippers,” draws our attention to the discarded footwear on the threshold of the furthest room. He also paints in a broom, a conspicuous bunch of keys in the door, a crooked, unlit candle, and a painting on the wall depicting yet an another domestic interior, this time one with figures.
However, because of the intriguing abstract designs, the warm, beautifully harmonious colors, and the marvelous skill on display, we needn’t read too deeply into all this to enjoy the pleasure of viewing the painting.
Sargent, too, in his “Hotel Room Interior” of 1905 delights the eye and suggests (but doesn’t fully tell) a story. In the center foreground a leather suitcase spills a traveller’s belongings in a jumbled heap. A half-eaten hunk of bread rests on the disarrayed table. But the real story I think is what Sargent wants to say about the beauty of light and color.
As you can see in the closeup, Sargent’s choice of colors is kaleidoscopic. Had anyone else ever juxtaposed a luminous, cool mint-green with a translucent, seashell pink-purple and orange? It’s kind of startlingly odd and charming all at once.
Even the “white” linens are multi-hued affairs of cool violet-grays and warm pink-orange yellows – that is to say, anything BUT white.
Interiors continue to be a common motif in painting. For more, see Sylvia Tybeck explain how to situate the figure within the interior in her video, The Tavern Maid.
Art History Humor
If you need a chuckle, check out this irreverent “Silly But Accurate Guide on How to Recognize Famous Painters by their Art.”