The Weavers by John Singer Sargent is something of an anomaly in our collection of American painting. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer generally favored evocative, lyrical images rendered in a softly painted style: Thomas Dewing’s languorous women, Dwight Tryon’s atmospheric landscapes, and, above all, James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, whose evanescent surfaces were, as one contemporary noted, “like breath on glass.” There is nothing breathy about The Weavers. A critic who saw the picture at the 1913 Royal Academy exhibition in London called it “a pictorial exclamation.” It is painted with Sargent’s characteristic bravura brushwork—bold, liquid strokes that almost magically coalesce into the interior of a textile factory that Sargent must have seen during his 1912 sojourn in the Spanish city of Granada.
If the style of The Weavers makes it stand apart from most of the Freer’s American art, the subject makes it distinctive within Sargent’s oeuvre. What is unusual—and what I especially love about this picture—is that the workers it depicts are worlds away from the artist’s customary subjects: rich patrons who counted on Sargent to capture their best likenesses. Instead, Sargent focuses his attention and formidable talent on a group of anonymous laborers. They occupy a dark, crowded space punctuated by intense areas of sunlight so bright they make you want to squint. This is a totally physical picture, from the subject matter to the quality of the paint to the perceptual response it elicits.
The Weavers has not been on view since 1998. Along with other little-seen works of American art, it will come out of storage in 2017, when we celebrate the reopening of the Freer after its renovation. If you’re a fan of Sargent’s work, see his painting Breakfast in the Loggia in the Freer before the building closes on Monday, January 4, 2016.