All those things one hears about the painting methods and techniques of John Singer Sargent come to an excellent example in his Portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley of 1892. Sargent can manage a tour de force of a painterly approach like very few other artists. Of course, it is said that he admired Velazquez greatly and one thinks of this artist in comparison but there have been others like Frans Hals, who has left us feeling so inadequate by not leaving us any preliminary sketches, drawn or painted. Mrs. Hugh Hammersley just makes his facility and adeptness so obvious as to be indisputable.
One of the first things to notice is the color. He has his subject adorned in a cascading red velvet dress that puddles on the floor. As if using the same paint he mixed on the palette for the dress, he splashes the color around on the rug to make his floral pattern. This is useful as much as it is unifying, especially considering the sofa appears to be a lighter tone of the same paint. Not only this but this ruddy red, besides beautiful and interesting, resides in the skin tones of his subject, all of which is further emphasized by the splotches of pink highlights. The gossamer collar and sleeves of the dress come from quick but gentle attacks of the canvas with whites and greys. Not to overwhelm the sitter, Sargent has kept the background, even though it is a mass of satin fabric, muted and non-competitive, created with slaps of neutral colors. Even the pattern on the sofa is quickly rendered.
To keep with the feeling of an immediate expression, the sofa lacks careful depiction, being a bit uneven and out of perspective. I’m not sure if the line of the bottom of the sofa continues in a straight line under her dress and onto the side of the canvas. Also, the figure is longer than classical proportions, possibly to sweeten what might not be considered a great beauty. Her left hand almost seems abstract and her posture makes the appearance of sitting up in salutation and recognition, or perhaps she is about to rise.
What stabilizes this picture since the figure makes a line that slides to and off the edge of the canvas? For one thing, the arm that extends out in the opposite direction. With the line of the other arm and the beautifully illustrated face that is framed by the collar, a great deal of focus points toward the face. The straight and shiny vertical form of the leg of the sofa provides an anchor–in fact, it is critical–while the crisscross of the lines of the figure and the sofa support the composition. One can easily see how in a lesser artist’s hands the figure would seem to be oddly slumping toward the left.
Amazingly, by inspecting the quickly drawn sofa and background, one imagines that he may have just stepped up to the canvas and began drawing with a paintbrush. Surely any preliminary studies would have prevented this quick sketching.