“Armchair Villa Falconiere”

“Armchair Villa Falconiere by Robert Leedy After John Singer Sargent”, watercolor on Arches 300 lb. Cold Press paper, 15″ x 22″.

Perhaps the most effective learning experience for an art student is copying works from the Masters. It’s a time tested tradition in academic art. Many traditional academies spend an enormous amount of class time simply copying  masterpieces. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the halls and salons of the Louvre in Paris were filled with students copying paintings of the great artists.

I put the challenge to my watercolor class this past Monday. I imagined big moans and groans when I announced the exercise: recreate a watercolor painting by John Singer Sargent. I chose the painting, “Villa Falconiere” painted by the artist in 1907. Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent are two American watercolorists who are the first to come to mind in terms of Masters of the medium. Both were oil painters before turning to watercolor. Both loved the outdoors and both were extraordinary plein air painters. Winslow Homer is well known for his paintings of Florida, The Bahamas and Bermuda while Sargent is known for his paintings of Italy, namely Venice, as well as paintings of the Alps, the Middle East and his exquisite watercolor portraits. Homer flirts with abstraction and creates delightfully simple yet complex paintings of people interacting with their environment. Sargent paints with light and uses dazzling color to create joyous watercolors on paper.

Sargent often painted in watercolor while traveling. One dismissive critic once referred to them as “travel souvenirs”. John Singer Sargent’s reputation was built upon the years of portrait painting that he was so good at. He was born into a well to do family and hob knobbed with high society thus his paintings were in high demand and he made a very good living at it. As for his watercolors, he never really considered selling them – even after he ‘retired’ from portrait painting to concentrate on the medium of watercolor. A friend and fellow artist convinced him in the early 1900’s to exhibit his watercolors in the United States (he lived in London) at a gallery in New York. When approached about selling his watercolors, Sargent expressed doubt saying that his watercolors “only amount to anything when taken as a lot together.” A close friend of Sargent’s convinced the Brooklyn Museum to purchase 83 of Sargent’s watercolors for a price tag of $20,000.

The painting I chose is not so typical of Sargent’s watercolors. It is somewhat subdued and quiet. It could almost serve as a background for a Botticelli painting from the Italian Renaissance. I think my students would howl in protest had I presented them with one of the Venetian watercolors. “Villa Falconiere” is all about architecture. What I like about it is the stark composition and play of cool, negative space juxtaposed with warm positive space. The architectural space is filled with sun drenched light and warm shadows. Sargent is somewhat reserved with his colors but if you look closely, there are some nice color happenings going on…

I found the image in one of my coffee table books and took a photo of it (yeah, I know what you’re going to say…but this is for educational purposes!) I made large 12 x 18 prints at Costco and distributed them to my students. To my surprise, my students happily accepted their challenge. I warned them about the problem of correct color and urged them to seek out another example online – as a separate reference. As I have learned from creating archival prints of my own work, multi-generational steps and reproductions of an image can easily throw the color out of whack. I would even bet there is a big difference between the image from my book and the original painting hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

I also took the challenge as any respected instructor would do and went to work on my own copy. Yes, my dear students, I am in the trenches with you! I chose to paint as close to the same size as the original  which is roughly 15″ x 22″.

The painting was a learning experience. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Sargent was working with a limited palette. After painting for a while, I did some poking around and found his preferred watercolor palette which consisted of – among other colors – Cadmium Yellow Pale, Alizarin Carmine, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Vandyke Brown, and Viridian. Those mentioned are the ones I assume he used in “Villa Falconiere”.
  • The values were tricky. I frequently discovered my washes were not as dark or light as Mr. Sargent laid down. I discovered the problematic values as I compared them to neighboring washes of a set value. The many architectural planes in this composition compound the problem. I know when I see my students next Monday, this will be a common problem.
  • Sargent doesn’t mingle colors (dropping one or more colors into an existing one while it is still wet) as much as I thought he did. He also doesn’t layer color as much as I thought he did which probably explains why his watercolors are always so fresh.
  • Replicating Sargent’s mark making was the most difficult aspect of this project. ‘Marks’ refer to a personal style of brushwork and how the paint connects with the paper. Sensitive, well-placed mark making is one of the very enjoyable qualities of a great watercolor. There is a lot of intuition and a wealth of experience in a Master’s placement of marks on paper or canvas.
  • Related to the above is the idea of spontaneity. It is one thing to sit down a create a painting. It is another thing to follow in an artist’s tracks and recreate where and how he has stepped. This slows the ‘recreator’ down to a point that spontaneous marks and strokes might not be as fresh and effortless as the original creator’s.
  • Copying a Sargent was enjoyable but, as I mentioned to my students, painting this scene on your own – on location – might create a better painting relative to your individual skill – yet think about how cool it would be to sit beside John Singer Sargent himself and plein air paint in watercolor – on site in Italy?
  • You gain a lot of respect for a Master artist as you attempt to reproduce his work. I also have equal respect for any forger who can pull it off seamlessly!

So, how do I feel about my attempt? I did better than expected yet there is a tighter, draftsman quality to Sargent’s painting. Add to the above that he used a straight edge to draw his composition. This is something I prefer not to do though Sargent’s painting has a more formal, exactness to it that is lacking in mine. Color-wise, my characteristic bold colors were a bit subdued here though they are still a little more saturated than the Master’s. There is also a richness lacking in mine which made me wonder about glazing (layers of transparent washes to create complexity or alter color) – did he or didn’t he? There is a bit of an apparent patina to Sargent’s work. Possibly that is the natural aging / yellowing of the paper? Mine looks too clean and ‘modern’.

I am excited to see my students’ attempt. I asked them to record their thoughts and feelings throughout the assignment. Next Monday’s critique session will be very interesting.

My Sargent painting is done. I cannot claim it as my own nor can I declare it is a Sargent though I did sign it with credit to Sargent: “‘Armchair Villa Falconiere’ by Robert Leedy after John Singer Sargent”.

why not auction it off on eBay?

An original watercolor by Robert Leedy – after John Singer Sargent.
“Armchair Villa Falconiere by Robert Leedy After John Singer Sargent”
watercolor on Arches 300 lb. Cold Press paper
15″ x 22″, unframed.
$10 starts the first bid with NO RESERVE!
or purchase it outright for $500

Here is your chance to acquire an original watercolor at a great price.


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