Informative Formal Contrast: 19th-Century Painters Bingham & Sargent at Met

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River“; through 9/20/15.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends“; through 10/4/15.

A brief visual comparison–not the most characteristic work of each by a long shot, but simply  . . .  stark for the purpose:

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) Portrait of Leonidas Wetmore, 1839-40 Oil on canvas US Department of State (The Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room) 1993.0012
George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)
Portrait of Leonidas Wetmore, 1839-40; oil on canvas
US Department of State (The Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room) 1993.0012 (MMA website)

 

 

 

 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Ralph Curtis on the Beach, 1880; 11x14 in. oil on panel; High Museum of Art, Atlanta (MMA website)
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Ralph Curtis on the Beach, 1880; oil on panel; High Museum of Art, Atlanta (MMA website)

 

 

 

 

 

 

MMA Bingham object link

MMA Sargent object link

Can one react to a painting as paint (on surface) alone, even just as an exercise? Of course not,  pace (early) Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg; especially (but not only) when it is explicitly  representational.  Still, there are interesting technical and perceptual comparisons to be made between the paintings of George Caleb Bingham in (mainly) the first half of the 19th century and those of John Singer Sargent at the fin-de-siecle that also illuminate broader formal tendencies through this time span–the obvious incomparable, divergent aspects of their respective lives and oeuvres notwithstanding.

The ombre-tinged atmospheric conditions of Bingham’s Missouri-based river scenes (and any landscape element in his oeuvre) are Romanticist hold-overs. However much inspired by or mimetic of observed nature,  the studio-blended, backdrops mainly set off his sometimes stilted but credible, folksy frontier dramas.  The animated charcoal studies in the show attest to his predominant focus on figure poses.  On the other hand, Sargent’s backgrounds and foregrounds are merged thoroughly in his most progressive (according to canonical modern-formalist criteria) paintings.  Overall, it’s high Impressionism; in some cases, appearing “woven”–Van Gogh-like, even where smaller brushes are employed to less splashy effect (repros exaggerate the dichotomy between his varied surface facture). Yet the psychology of the sitters emerges enigmatically and engagingly out of the impasto, abetted by posture, costume, settings; whereas Bingham creates more so characters, although conveyed through the detailed, apparent likeness of his models.

Bingham’s rapprochement with naturalism and backwoods staffing can be obliquely paralleled with the marginal peasants beneath rubbed, misty skies of canonical proto-Realist, J.-F. Millet.  Sargent can move through Impressionism to suggest Symbolist aesthetics when his seemingly autonomous brushwork leads to elongated elegance and mysterious, shadowy palettes.  Both painters flaunt interest and depth in portraying light.

 

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