Serov and Sargent
 Valentin Serov




In1985, during a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery in St Petersburg, I was surprised at the large number of first rate Russian paintings that are generally unknown in the U.S.  Serov's painting were especially impressive.  I purchased a poster of  'Girl with peaches', carried it home, framed it, and hung it on a wall. Years later in Boston, I purchased a reproduction by the then underrated American artist John Singer Sargent, also of a young girl at the breakfast table. The two painting, hang side by side in my office, and offer an interesting contrast. Both paintings are on the surface cheerful and both have disturbing undercurrents.

Girl with peaches

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Title Girl with peaches. Portrait of V.S. Mamontova
Artist Valentin Serov
Date 1887
location  Tretyakov Gallery,  Moscow 

The light pouring through the window dissolves the contours of various objects. The artist has place the figure of the model against the light, turning the figure  to the viewer. He painted the image with warm tones, contrasting with the cold tones of the space.  Organized around the central compositional triangle, the figure gains inner movement. The girl's posture, combined with the pensive gaze, achieves a balance between the girl's harmonious inner world  and the world around her. The painting is all light and bright with warm colors; that is, until we notice the chairs. The chairs, dark marching soldiers, give the painting an ominous middle ground. And then we notice the girl, V.S. Mamontova, is metamorphosing into a woman before our very eyes.

tretyakov The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Breakfast Table

Sometime in the 90's, while attending a conference at Harvard, I visited the Fogg and the Boston Museum of Fine Art and gained a fresh appreciation for the works of John Singer Sargent. His portraits of rich and famous people hold no interest for me, but his painting of a young girl at a breakfast table I find appealing. The figure is Sargent's younger sister, Violet, painted at the home of his parents in Nice. The bright and cheerful table setting, the silver pieces on the shelve, the brown wood, and the pictures hanging on the wall, all perfectly executed, are not offset by the blackness beyond the open door. That darkness does not seem threatening but benign. The light hanging above illuminates her face as she concentrates on her book, while pealing an orange, and provides the focus of the painting.

the breakfast table

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Title The Breakfast Table
Artist  John Singer Sargent 
  Oil on canvas, 1884
Location  Harvard Art Museum 

The green shadow on the wall, the green leaves and napkins, along with the green tinges on the girl's face are a bit strange, but the soft brush stokes give life to the  work.  This demure painting  makes the eye linger - looking but not finding the something that makes this scene familiar.  Finally, the painting is not simply about one girl reading and absent mindedly  peeling an orange, but a beautiful work about quiet moments of solitude in the early morning. The darkness held in abeyance, at least for a while.



boston mfa Boston Museum of Fine Arts