John Singer Sargent's Villa di Marlia, Lucca: The Balustrade
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Villa di Marlia, Lucca: The Balustrade 
John Singer Sargent -- American painter  
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite pencil, with wax resist on paper
40 x 52 cm (15 3/4 x 20 1/2 in.)
The Hayden Collection–Charles Henry Hayden Fund
Jpeg MFA
(See interactive zoom at the MFA

This was painted in one of the villa di Marlia  near Lucca. He painted many like this in Tuscany and around Rome. He combines the elegance of the architecture with the foliage of the garden -- the post and the balustrade actually occupying a greater importance in this composition.  

This simplicity and grandeur, cleanness and harmony are fundamental elements which run throughout his creative mind. A man now in his fifties, mature in his style, has never fully left his roots of his twenties and the classical formal training he received at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts which put strong importance upon the study of classical design -- Greek, Roman Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance.  

Although as a young man he never won the coveted Prix de Rome Contest - the prize to study in Rome and paint the Great Masters and architecture in and around -- it was something he did on his own and throughout his travels. It was, for him, an exercise in creative dexterity which he would never leave. These paintings are a constant vigilance at keeping his faculties sharp for observation of the world around him.  

To the Italian Renaissance architects,  gardens were a balance between "Art" (the regular form of intended controlled growth) and "Nature"  (the irregularity of unplanned and undisturbed outgrowth); and the relationship between human thought and human effort. This balance was asserted in symmetry within the entire site of buildings and gardens -- one was never wholly separate from the other. Transitions from interior to exterior were sometimes so subtle a person might not know when they were leaving the house and entering the garden -- or leaving the garden and entering the house. Architectural elements, such as a balustrade, in this case, were carried outwards and themes of the garden were carried within. These elements and themes, gradually lessened respectively as one explored deeper until you would either find yourself at the outer bonds of unplanned nature or within the fully designed inner rooms of the home. [1] 

As always, John was not painting in a vacuum. Although they were often done for his own pleasure, interest in Italian Renaissance gardens were at a forefront of the public's eye. This is a subject matter he took up on his trips to that part of the world starting in 1900, and would grow in importance as interest in American Renaissance Movement grew. Formal arrangements for gardens were becoming more desired to complement the buildings of  architects such as Charles McKim and Richard Moris Hunt 

Surprisingly enough, up to Sargent's time, the gardens of Italy were virtually unexplored by scholars. There had been one serious study by two Frenchmen -- Percier and Fontaine back in 1824 [2], (never really distributed outside of France) but it didn't compare to the well photographed (for that time) and documented treatise by two young Americans -- Charles A. Platt and his younger brother William Platt in 1893. Charles published their findings for Harper's Magazine in two installments that year and then in a book called "Italian Gardens" the following year. [3]  

By the turn of the century, interest in the City Beautiful Movement was reaching critical mass. Some of the principle figures had come together in Washington D.C. for the McMillian Commission of 1901. Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (who was carrying on in his father's footsteps), Charles Moore, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Charles McKim (the latter two of the Boston Public Library fame) all presented their ideas for a comprehensive and inclusive formal design of Washington D.C.'s central mall which brought together a hitherto fragmented conglomerate of parks and structures. They embraced the Classical Renaissance idea that gardens and buildings should exist in a symmetrical harmony. In a sense, they were carrying forward what had been done at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 

There was an awakening in the popular public. The acclaimed Edith Wharton, whom had been sending back travelogue articles of her trips for magazines such as Century and Harper's, in 1904 published her own very successful book "Italian Villa and Their Gardens" illustrated by Maxfield Parrish [4]. By 1910, interest in the American Renaissance Movement had reached its zenith, and probably best expressed by the palatial estates of James Deering's Florida "Villa Vizcaya" and Harold F. McCormick with  his wife Edith Rockefeller (daughter of John D.'s)  "Villa Turicum" at Lake Forest, IL. which sat overlooking Lake Michigan with begining  designs started by Frank Lloyd Wright but  really brought to fruition by Charles A. Platt -- the very same Platt who had published his "Italian Gardens" in Harper's some seventeen years previous.  

We had come full circle.  

None of this would have escaped John's brilliant cognitive mind. Many of these people were friends or acquaintances. The people paying for these colossal residences were the same who begged for portraits. The men of the City beautiful Movement were his friends, and in many cases fellow alumni of the Ècole des Beaux-Arts.   

America had come a long way since Richard Moris Hunt's mother asked if the country was even ready for the Arts. Artisans were employed in an unprecedented level of involvement. Herman Mueller designing gorgeous ceramic tile mosaics, Tiffany turning out breathtaking stain glass and silver, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, creating intricately cut stone sculptures and interior wood moldings and mantel pieces; Many of his friends from the Broadway colony days were doing mural work for new classically designed state capital buildings, city halls, libraries, monumental train stations, new governor's mansions all over the country. Frank Millet was active at the highest levels, coordinating efforts for the World Columbian Exposition, sitting on boards of major art institutions. John, himself had risen to the highest levels in the Royal Academy.  

American artists were taking the best of what the history of western culture had to offered, bringing it home, adapting it and making it their own, building upon a the rich wealth of ideas in a manner and fashion unseen since the Italian Renaissance. 

The stars had finally aligned in the sky. Artists were working in harmony towards a totality of beauty that was a pure personification of Beaux-Arts ideals. The public had awakened to a dawning of a new age. Museums which didn't exist decades before were now bursting at the seams from growing collections. The future seemed boundless. Art and artists were going to save the world . .  . Well, something like that.
Sunday, June 28, 1914, two shots were fired, an Archduke was dead, and the world would never be the same -- but that's for another story. 
In 1910, we hadn't yet reached that ugliness. As John had done so many times in Venice, he applied his incredible skill in watercolors to the most simple and beautiful of things. It was always the rhythm and harmony of light abreviatedly expressed in quick strokes. The glittering reflected sun breaking through under the gritty fingernail scratches of his paper's surface --  the unadulterated pulp brought back to the middle of a dried washed plane. Quick hatching strokes -- this way and that to show the foliage of the plant.  Little dabs of formless wet color -- here and there, built up through the complexity of a difficult medium where colors don't like to stay -- and suddenly three dimensional forms emerge with texture; the stone balustrade, cold and hard; he clay planters warming in the sun. 

We will forever be left baffed by its execution. John Singer Sargent is a true Grand Master of a chess-playing-artist. Each stroke of his brush already conceived and understood in his mind four and five moves out. Emotionally, we understand the simplicity in an instant. It's checkmate! There is no doubt about it! But how the hell he got there, and how he knew when to stop will forever leave us jawdropped. 





Purchased from the artist through M. Knoedler, New York, April 4, 1912

1) Katherine F. Benzel; The Room in Context: Design Beyond Boundries;" 1998; McGraw-Hill; p 147) 

2) Choix des plus célébré  Maisona de Plaisance de Rome et ses Environs. Par Percier et Fontaine, Paris, 1824 

Choices of the more celibrated Mansions and Palaces of Rome and its Vicinity, by Percier and  Fontaine, Paris, 1824 

3) Charles A. Platt; Italian Gardens, Harpers New Monthly Magazine; July and August of 1893, pp. 165-180 

4) When  Edith Wharton published her "Italian Villa and Their Gardens" in 1904, it was a pendent to her first full book "The Decoration of Houses" (1897), written with her architect friend, Ogden Codman. The two together argured strongly for neo-classical houses and away from victorian designs -- it became a standard in the field of American interior design. both books became quite popular 

Sketches by JSS 

Ornate Balustrade, "Saluta"   
Sargent at Harvard  
Graphite on off-white wove paper  
34.1 x 25.0 cm (actual)  
Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond  
Inscription: l.r., graphite: Saluta  
verso, graphite: 1937.8.124

McMillian Commission Plan for Washington D.C.

James Deering's Florida "Villa Vizcaya"

Harold F. McCormick and wife Edith Rockefeller's
 "Villa Turicum"




By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 8/23/2000