Girls in White Dresses
Annika Cleland-Hura on finding comfort in the work of John Singer Sargent.
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how much you miss something when it’s suddenly out of your reach. Joni Mitchell was right after all. Parks, pubs, theaters—and the overpowering sensation of standing before a work of art, feeling at once so small and yet deeply connected to something so vast. Being moved by a physical painting is an experience I dearly miss.
My father, a painter and sculptor, was an excellent guide in my early gallery-going days, introducing me to Monet’s brilliant swathes of color and the visual poetry of Turner. But for us both, no artist can equal the genius of John Singer Sargent’s brushstrokes.
The first time I saw a Sargent painting, fleeing stolid humidity into the air-conditioned Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, I was bowled over by the precision and yet the casualness of each brushstroke. I’ve since had the honor of seeing many a Sargent in person, including one particular work that I, age fourteen, connected to instantly and inescapably: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.
Sargent is never far from my mind, even in less tempestuous times. I’ve carried a postcard of the painting with me to every apartment, from Denmark to Edinburgh. But now, quarantine having reignited my own half-forgotten passion for painting, each glance stirs newly-invigorated admiration in me—such effortless beauty of composition, of color; just the right amount of detail, but with a looseness that allows the observer to slip between the brushstrokes into the scene itself. I find myself eagerly searching close-ups taken in the Tate gallery, remarking over and over at the skill, yes, but even more at the love and passion with which the work is so clearly imbued.
But my phone screen doesn’t quite cut it—something about the blue light, I suppose. There’s nothing quite like the warmth of oil on canvas.
Annika Cleland-Hura is a poet from all over, a lifelong devotee of art & language, and a student of philosophy and literature, previously published by The Poetry Society.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was an American artist born in Florence, Italy. He is considered the most successful portrait artist of his generation. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and 2,000 watercolors.