While examining an oil painting attributed to John Singer Sargent, I made a startling discovery. The painting, which is a study of the Porta Della Carta, Venice, is an unassuming view of the famous entrance to the Dodge’s palace. It fits within the type of scene Sargent was attracted to: Out of the way back alleys and doorways, stucco walls and finials, presenting an intimate view of the city, one that was certainly unrecognizable to most tourists.
Although Sargent loved to use his friends and family as models in his Venetian paintings, this scene is devoid of figures. We (Jake Collins, Cataloguer for Woodshed Art Auctions, and I) wondered why.
The answer soon appeared.
Infrared photography unearthed the fact that two figures were outlined and subsequently overpainted at the time of creation. The under-painting shows a woman, possibly with a bustle, and another, unidentifiable figure, standing on the lower left-hand side of the painting, in the area that subsequently was altered to resemble deterioration on the wall.
Jake Collins summarized the find: “Although the idea of eliminating figures in a composition may seem unusual, John Singer Sargent was a perfectionist who had no hesitation omitting elements he did find up to par. Sargent, arguably the premier portrait painter of his generation, believed that it was “..impossible to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong.” and would amend his paintings often when creating studies, only discarding the canvas when the changes became too apparent.
From what is discernible from infrared scans of the work, the manner in which these two figures are rendered is nearly identical to the way Sargent was taught to paint. Sargent trained under Carolus-Duran, who instructed Sargent never to underdraw, only underpaint his canvases. He would begin with sweeping brush strokes and fill in details, beginning in middle tones and moving outward from there, gradually filling in his light and dark tones. Infrared scans of this particular underpainting show the beginning of a developed painting, with a large mass of a neutral color accentuated by both black and white details, further evidence that this may indeed be the work of Sargent himself. Furthermore, one of Sargent’s tenets of painting is to paint figures into another rather than rendering them separately until they touch. In this work, this idea is at play: the figures meld seamlessly into one another, forming shapes that could be the beginnings of bustles or cloaks, arms or shoulders, or faces or chapeaus.”