Editor’s Letter | The Essentials of Painting

By Margaret L. Brown

What makes a painting beautiful? It’s not merely subject matter, of course. John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew on this page is beautiful, yes, but so are James Reynolds’ cows on the cover. “Damn subject matter … it’s technique that counts,” says painter Ramon Kelley, one of several artists in this issue who cite Sargent [1856-1925] as a major influence.

“Back when great artists such as Sargent were painting, we had art schools teaching the essentials—drawing, anatomy, composition, and color. But we’ve gradually lost that emphasis,” says Kelley. Reynolds agrees, saying, “When I was a student, the art schools taught the fundamentals. I feel sorry for students today because they’re being encouraged by instructors to do their own thing. They want to break the rules before they know what the rules are.”

Sargent himself learned the fundamentals of painting from Parisian Emile Carolus-Duran. The instructor taught his students a painterly style of building works from tonal contrasts rather than line, with fluid, seemingly effortless brushwork. In addition to stressing the importance of texture, color, movement, and the effects of light, Carolus-Duran’s edict was to “express the maximum by means of the minimum.” Thus for Sargent, writes critic Robert Hughes in American Visions [1997 Knopf], “pictorial truth arose from editing reality, perfecting fictions”—a quality in Sargent’s paintings that Hughes refers to as “the elegance of rejection.”

This issue is filled with painterly works graced by such elegance, in which the subject matter is simply a means to an end—beauty. Mike Larsen has put great effort into researching historical records and photographic archives to accurately depict tribal costuming in his new series of Native American shamans (see page 60)—undoubtedly important subject matter. Still, technique transcends subject in Larsen’s paintings, and beauty transcends meaning.

Larsen is an admirer of the work of Russian-born painter Nicolai Fechin [1881-1955], another painterly technician. “When I study Fechin’s paintings, I try to get a grasp on how he saw things,” says Larsen. “But I’ll never be able to accomplish his technique.”

Fechin once said that technique is “an endless accumulation of qualities and wisdom.” That, in the end, is what makes a painting beautiful.”

Featured in May 1998