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'On his Holidays' (1901), by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)


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About the artwork

'On his holidays' is a portrait of Alexander McCulloch (1887 - 1951). This portrait shows the young man, then a schoolboy at Winchester College, resting after salmon fishing in Norway. The summer holidays were a bad time for salmon fishing in Britain and Norway became more fashionable at the end of the 19th century.

Sargent was a master of light effects, seen here in the varied tonal qualities of rocks and the large rapid brushstrokes with which the river is described. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1902 the painting was admired for the fascinating recording of the silvery daylight of a Northern summer day, while reflections of the sunlight can be discerned in the iridescent stream.

In this work the angle created by the body of Alexander serves the perspective of the painting and is parallel to the flow of the stream. The intensity of the painting's diagonals is softened by the curved body of the fish, the net by Alexander's legs and the swirl and surge of the stream around the rock.

Sargent's close up of the sitter and the landscape gives the painting an immediacy and directness, while allowing for the observation of the different textures in the rocks and the water. In Sargent's portraits, for which he was most famous, sitters reach out to the spectator, actively inviting you to observe their beauty or to consider their personalities. The figure of Alexander with his school cap still on is slightly nostalgic and the dreaminess and youth of the sitter is juxtaposed with the dead salmon. Sargent originally made preliminary sketches of Alexander standing and holding the net along with others of the river and the salmon. These sketches are all now held in private collections.

Lord Lever bought this painting in 1923. Lever had also bought 'Daphnaephoria', the large work by Frederic Leighton and other Victorian masterpieces in the auction of George McCulloch's collection in 1913. 'On his holidays' was Lord Lever's favourite painting.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents who had left Philadelphia to work and travel in Europe. Sargent grew up speaking four languages and was an excellent pianist with a passion for art and architecture. In 1874 he went to Paris to study art in the studio of Emile Carolus–Duran, who taught his students to paint objects and people under faithfully recorded conditions of light and atmosphere and to lay the paint stroke by stroke without reworking. Sargent also enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux–Arts, the official school of art in Paris. Sargent's early works were inspired by his travels to different parts of Europe (Brittany, Spain, Tangier and Venice). However after the success of his flamenco–themed painting 'El Jaleo' (1880, Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) in the Paris Salon of 1882 Sargent decided to concentrate on portraits of famous people, mainly women.

Encouraged by his friend the novelist Henry James, and after having sent works to the Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1882 and 1884, Sargent moved from Paris to London in 1886. Sargent exhibited 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' (1885–6, Tate Britain) at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1887. Despite the Impressionistic treatment of the paint, such as the loose handling and rapid brushstrokes, the painting of children in a flower garden lighting lanterns, with its relevance to the English tradition of sentimental and symbolic images of innocent childhood, proved extremely popular with the British public and was immediately purchased by the nation. However Sargent did not receive many commissions for portraits in England, his main clients being people from his own small social circle. His style was probably considered too unconventional for the British clientele. To compensate for his lack of portrait commissions Sargent executed a great number of landscapes during the second half of the 1880s.

Sargent's career improved after his trips to America in 1887–8 and 1889–90. His friendship with important members of the Boston and New York society aspiring to the European and cosmopolitan character of Sargent's work and personality was a major reason for his success. On his second trip to America in 1890 and in the course of less than nine months Sargent completed over forty portraits. Sargent excelled in portraits of lady sitters, some the wives of powerful bankers or politicians.

The young writer and artist W. Graham Robertson whose portrait Sargent completed in 1894 was quoted to have said about the artist “It is positively dangerous to sit to Sargent. It's taking your face in your hands”. This quote attests to Sargent's ability to both observe his sitters and understand their psychology.

At the age of thirty–eight Sargent was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in London, and in 1897 a Royal Academician. High demand for Sargent's portraits (in 1897 he complained that: “he had three sittings in a day and hardly an interval between”) led him to repeat poses and meant that he was less free to experiment. Eventually he gave up portrait painting in 1907 despite his enormous success and demand for new work. His financial independence and the time needed for the completion of the murals for the Boston Library (a project he was assigned in 1890) as well as his desire to paint other types of art, such as landscapes, informed this decision.

Alexander was the son of George McCulloch, who became wealthy after investing in Australian gold and silver mines and who built a remarkable art collection that he housed in a mansion in Queen's Gate, London.

Sargent accompanied father and son on their fishing expedition to the Sundal Valley in Norway in 1901, and it is not clear whether the portrait of Alexander was commissioned. It is likely that Sargent may have been inspired to paint the portrait by the beautiful landscape, as the painting is a combination of portraiture and landscape, similar to paintings he completed in the Alps in 1904. In those portraits of his nieces and friends lying in meadows by rocky streams as in this portrait of Alexander, Sargent carefully selected his viewpoint as if framing a photograph and manipulated the landscape to create careful juxtapositions of forms.

The descriptive power of Sargent's rapid and vigorous brushstrokes, which so enlivened his society portraits of the 1880s and 1890s, is very evident here. In this painting the boy's casual but thoughtful pose within a precisely worked out natural setting very much reflects the artists new and rather wider intentions as he began to move away from conventional portraiture.