By John Singer Sargent
Oil on canvas, 1893
National Portrait Gallery, London
Surely no other artist has ever taken honors in mathematics! Yet it is obvious, on reflection, how helpful a knowledge of mathematics may be to an artist. Color is a gift. No one can be taught color. Taste is a gift but the scientific sides of art are simplified and strengthened by a knowledge of mathematics. There is little record of Brabazon's Cambridge life and no information that he devoted even his leisure time to sketching, but his future career must have been often in his thoughts, and the course of it was probably quite arranged in his own mind during his undergraduate days.
The decision had to be made after leaving Cambridge: he made it, and he would not swerve. It was the wish of the family that he should go to the bar, and he was promised a generous allowance if he would enter at one of the Inns of Court But, to paraphrase his own words, when he looked up the dingy and unpicturesque staircases which adorn our celebrated seats of legal learning, the sight to his artistic and aesthetic tastes was too dreadful, and the grim and unromantic facts that he would have to encounter daily too terrible tor contemplation. He appealed to his father, he announced firmly that the only career possible to him was that of an artist, that Rome called him (it was Rome in those days, not Paris), and his father relented, but told his son, after the manner of fathers, that if he was determined to proceed as an art student to Rome, his allowance would be considerably curtailed. To an enthusiastic youth smitten with the art fever mere money matters are negligible. So to Rome he went, and there he lived and worked and learnt for three years.
Hercules Brabazon Brabazon was born in Paris on November 27th, 1821, the younger son of Hercules Sharpe, of Blackballs, Durham, and of Oaklands, Battle. In 1840 he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honours in the Mathematical Tripos.
(Hercules Brabazon Brabazon-His Life and Art, By C. Lewis Hind (1912) at brabazonarchive.com)
White on Buff Paper
On the Grand Canal
S. Maria della Salute beyond
Pencil and watercolor
Bdycolor on gray paper
Watercolor on paper
San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
View from the Artist's Window
Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821-1906) was an Irish/English watercolorist who came to it professionally at a late age -- though he had been a gentleman artist for many years previously. He held his first one-man exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1892 at the age of 71 quickly became a sensation with works such as "The Pink Palace".
Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer, and D. S. MacColl, his friends from the New English Art Club, were all wildly supportive of this "new kid's" first solo exhibition. Sir Frederick Wedmore described him as being: 'A country gentleman, who at seventy years old made his debut as a professional artist, and straightaway became famous.'
Canale del Pietro
Santa Maria de Giglio, Venice
A Mediterranean Seaport
Lake view, probably Lake Maggiore
Although thirty years older than Sargent, the two shared a lot in common and they became good friends. Brabazon first exhibited at the New English Art Club in '91. He was raised in France, developed a love of music and traveled widely spending his summers in the Riviera and traveled through North Africa and the Middle East.
Born Hercules Brabazon Sharpe, the youngest of two sons from an Irish aristocratic family which held estates in both Ireland and Britain he was able to enjoy a life of the intellect, arts and leisure. Upon the early death of his older brother ('47) and then his father in '58 when he was thirty-seven years old, he inherited the title and fortune of the family and became Hercules Brabazon Brabazon.
Brabazon combines the atmospheric effects of J.M.W. Turner with the deliciously suggestive brush and color sense of Richard Parkes Bonington. Eritrea (c.1874) shows more of the Bonington influence in its delicate sky and deftly abbreviated figures. Using a buff tinted paper to soften the light and establish the basic tonality of the image, Brabazon can treat most of the large areas — the sky, walls and water — as negative space, and simply paint areas of highlight (using chinese white or gouache), shadow, or vivid local color. His color accents follow the traditional emphasis on blues and reds, subdued slightly so that they can be used in larger areas. This painting is worth careful study to appreciate the suggestiveness and poetic aptness of Brabazon's technique. The figures are never more than two or three adjacent blobs, but this is unmistakably a human crowd with brisk business to conclude along the waterfront market. The shadows along the top of the right wall and the tower at center reveal the effortless and understated accuracy of his technique. Nothing is ever labored or "finished" in Brabazon: he usually completed a painting in about an hour, often in less time than that, utilizing the impressionistic resources of watercolor to catch the image in a heartbeat of light.
Brabazon's favorite stops on these tours (where one hopes he shopped for a change of linen) was Venice, a location he painted often and somtimes in the company of J.S. Sargent. Venice (c.1891, provides a useful comparison to the same scene painted by J.M.W. Turner, whose works (the "color studies" in particular) Brabazon carefully studied at the British Museum and deeply admired throughout his life. Unlike a Turner painting, where the Italian light is often direct and intense, Brabazon shows the waters of Venice under golden billows of late afternoon clouds, sunlight pouring out of them like cream from a Venetian silver service. Brabazon uses white gouache very sparingly to suggest the campanile opening, the promenade gaslights and their reflections in the water, these touches linking the city silhouette to the sky and making the dark greenish waters appear richer. The gondonla is dispatched in four brushstrokes exactly, highlighting the extreme brevity in which the whole is accomplished. Brabazon's paintings often give the impression of Chinese sumi paintings — done with rapid, unedited touches of the brush.
The Distant Town
Brabazon has an unmannered knack for symbolizing visual impressions in the most economical way. The Distant Town (c.1875) briskly represents an unknown Tuscan city from a nearby hill, and seems to demonstrate that belabored realist detail or fussy impressionist brushwork are kinds of artistic stammering, obsessively distorting what is actually a seamless and airy envelope of perception. Using his favorite colored paper, prewetted to diffuse and mingle the brushstrokes as they are applied, Brabazon invokes the enveloping warmth of a hazy Italian afternoon. Depth is established by the clump of foreground bushes, scratched in with burnt umber, contrasted against the snowy semaphore of distant peaks. These two colors mingle in the middle distance as the walls and roofs of the town, articulated by shadow blues borrowed from the mountains and the earthy yellow of the foreground fields; the jostle of buildings amplifies the jagged rhythm of the peaks. He also mixes transparent colors with gouache to give areas of the painting more substance or luminance, just as Turner did. Many of Brabazon's paintings are even less than this: washy puddles of two or three colors, or a horizon described as a quick flock of brushstrokes. Despite his reluctance to display his works in public and his outwardly affluent retirement, Brabazon was an intently searching and hardworking artist who distilled the direction of Bonington and Turner into a highly effective and innovative style. It's unclear whether or how much he may have been influenced by the watercolors of James McNeill Whistler, exhibited in London from 1884, but both artists made remarkable strides in fusing minimal palettes and strongly abstracted designs with the plein air experience of landscape. In fact, Brabazon's approach was not equalled until the paintings of the California scene painters of the 1940's. Brabazon anticipated the direction that painting would take by creating some of the most personal, ardent and spontaneous watercolors of the 19th century.
( Art and Sunshine: The Work of Hercules Brabazon Brabazon by Chris Beetles (Hyway Pennington, 1997 at handprint.com)