Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Cypress Trees at San Vigilio

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Image of Cypress Trees at San Vigilio

John Singer Sargent , (Jan 12, 1856–Apr 15, 1925)

Cypress Trees at San Vigilio

28 1/4 in. x 36 1/4 in. (71.76 cm x 92.08 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite
Credit Line: Gift of Cornelius N. Bliss
Accession Number: 1928.52
Current Location: On view : 109


Although Sargent's portraits and figurative pictures are his best known works, "pure" landscapes have a significant place in his oeuvre. The drawings and watercolors of the Swiss Alps he made as a fourteen-year-old under the tutelage of the German-American artist Carl Welsch dominate his earliest surviving works.1 During his rise to international success in the 1880s and 1890s the pictures he sent to public exhibitions rarely revealed his interest in landscape, but he did make oil paintings of garden and country scenes (with and without figures) in this period, most of them the products of his experimentation with Impressionist technique and composition. Sargent's involvement with landscape became fuller and more public after the turn of the century, when he made a sustained effort to take breaks from his professional duties in London. This shift to pictures that brought him personal pleasure also stimulated a new desire to paint watercolors, especially landscapes. Although Sargent created most of his twentieth-century landscapes in Italy and the Alpine regions, he produced them in many other countries as well, including Portugal, Norway, Israel, Canada, and the United States.2

San Vigilio is a Northern Italian village that lies on the country's largest lake, Lago di Garda. It overlooks the expansive southern section of the lake, where the water resembles an inland sea. Beautiful trees abound on its sheltered shores, including citrus, oleander, olive, and cypress. Virgil and Goethe both praised Lake Garda, and in the 1920s the Italian writer and patriot Gabriele D'Annunzio made his home in Gardone Riviera, the town across the lake from San Vigilio. For a late summer vacation in 1913 Sargent, his sister Emily, and a group of their friends spent several weeks in the Italian Alps and Venice before their stay in San Vigilio in October. Cypress Trees at San Vigilio was painted on a hill with a magnificent view across the lake. Sargent's composition contrasts the rugged boulders and tall trees in the foreground with the vast luminous atmosphere that opens up beyond them. He depicted the stately, somber cypresses with long, broad strokes of dark blue, green, and brown, and used their forms as bold vertical divisions in his design. Golden sunlight reflects on the surface of the lake and gives a ruddy edge to the cypress at the left. The sun is not visible, but one has the sense that it is disappearing behind the distant shore, either blocked from view by one of the cypresses or out of the frame of the composition. This painting was made as the seasons were turning, and it is not surprising that Sargent would have relished the beautiful sunlight, knowing that he would soon have to face a London winter.

Much of Cypress Trees at San Vigilio is rendered in relatively thin, loosely worked paint, giving it a limpid quality that is more common in Sargent's watercolors than in his oils. The compositional device that is seen here—trees vertically dividing a landscape view—can also be found in other watercolors by Sargent: Granada (1912, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is a Spanish example that contrasts the silhouettes of nearby cypresses against a distant and hazy horizon; Palms (1917, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) plays the pale, attenuated forms of palm trees against the blue skies of Florida. However, Sargent painted few sunsets, and Cypress Trees at San Vigilio is remarkable for its elegiac mood.

Trevor Fairbrother, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 461

1. See Stephen D. Rubin, John Singer Sargent's Alpine Sketchbooks (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991).

2. See Patricia Hills, "' Painted Diaries': Sargent's Late Subject Pictures," in Hills et al., John Singer Sargent (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987), pp. 181-207.

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