John Singer Sargent’s The Hermit: Visualizing a Way of Being One with Nature
Mira Tudor on a new way to transmute our energy.
Sometimes you look at a painting and its colors come together all around you until they hold you enthralled. I’ve been looking at John Singer Sargent’s The Hermit for quite a few days now, and every time new bits of it lock down around new bits of me. First I took in the palette, the way the ochre-spiked earthy tones and grayish-greenish-blue rocks of the hillside are speckled with painterly light. Then I took in more of the scene: the man sitting down by what could be a brook, the several tree trunks, the two deer. I paused to consider how the deer are so much blended with the landscape that they appear almost as apparitions, and how the hermit’s lower body is almost disappearing into the waters of the brook.
Painterly questions aside, Sargent’s hermit impresses me deeply. He is rooted to the spot, and yet his lower body is in flux, in constant transformation. It’s almost as if we are looking at a god who sat down to rest a little and became one with the rocks and earth and water. Sargent, who wanted to make a statement about pantheism, quite succeeded. But there’s more in this personage that speaks to me. This hillside man makes me think of someone whose basic drives for things like sex and bonding have been transmuted into the energy of the landscape. If in mythology we have centaurs and other half-man, half-beast creatures, here we have a half-man, half-brook creation which is wonderful at conveying ideas. We often talk about becoming one with nature without quite knowing what we mean. Here’s a great way to visualize this notion. We can contemplate nature with our intellectual functions, but surrender the beat and flow of our body to its rhythms—synchronize our breath and the flow of our blood to the sounds of a burbling brook and to the song of the birds that this hermit seems to be listening to. We can dismantle certain pathways in the mind. And maybe, who knows, there’s a way to surrender even our social life after that.
Mira Tudor is the author of Poets, Artists, Lovers: A Novel. She mostly writes about love, the arts, and ideas. She lives in Bucharest, Romania.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted The Hermit in 1908. It is based on sketches he made in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The painting is part of Gallery 770 (American Impressionism) in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.