A Closer Look at John Singer Sargent’s Staircase in Capri

Let’s take a closer look at John Singer Sargent’s Staircase in Capri. Most people know Sargent for his delicate portraits, but I’m quite fond of how he painted simple, everyday subjects like this. Sargent painted it in his early days when he was around twenty-two (not bad for an early work, hey!).

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878
John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878
Painting the Landscape (Free Workshop)

I’ll walk you through the entire process using one of my recent paintings. You’ll see how I go from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished painting.

Simple Subject, Great Execution

There are no hidden messages with this one. It’s a staircase on the island of Capri, which was a popular destination for artists and writers in the 19th century. But the staircase does act as a vehicle to showcase the different elements—the lights, shadows, shapes, lines, and colors.

A good takeaway here is that any subject can be interesting if you paint it in an interesting way and from an interesting perspective. Don’t limit yourself to only painting “pretty” or “beautiful” subjects. Keep an open mind and see the world as a fascinating display of shapes, forms, lines, and colors.

A Showcase of White, or Is It?

The first thing that strikes me about the painting is the overwhelming sense of white. Sargent had a knack for painting white objects. Joaquín Sorolla is another name that comes to mind.

Interestingly, the finished painting shows hardly any pure white. Apart from the brightest highlights, Sargent painted the white staircase with mostly grays and weak blues and yellows. Even those bright highlights may have a slight-yellow tint. But despite this, the staircase still reads as white in the context of the painting. That’s because Sargent put the right colors in the right spots and got the overall color temperature right.

White objects tend to be unforgiving to paint. If you’re off with your colors even by just a touch, your painting won’t read well. Most beginner painters lean towards using too much white, when they should be using more grays and other weak colors. This is a tricky mistake to avoid, as we tend to perceive white objects as being lighter and whiter than they really are, especially white objects in shadow. (This is due to something called color constancy, but I’ll save that for another time.) You almost have to ignore what your eyes are telling you about the subject and use colors that don’t look right until you have everything else in place.

In the image below, I have placed a few white squares over the painting as points of comparison to demonstrate how far the colors are from white. The far right square is the most revealing. Those surrounding grays and other weak colors are much darker than I initially thought. Subjects like this are a minefield of optical illusions, and it’s a good testament to Sargent’s abilities and judgment.

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878
John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878

Confined Feel (Playing Into the Subject’s Nature)

The painting has a confined, almost claustrophobic feel. Walls tower up the sides as we look up the stairs. There’s just a small gap at the end for the trees and sky, but even that is fairly closed off. It’s the opposite of, say, the vast landscapes of Sir Auther Streeton or Albert Bierstadt. 

This inward and closed perspective of the staircase plays into its nature. I feel like I’m right there walking up the staircase. Think about what the painting would look like if Sargent took more of an open perspective, with more sky and surrounding landscape. I doubt it would be as compelling and true to the subject.

Tip: How you paint the subject and the perspective you choose can dramatically influence the overall feel of the painting and how the subject is perceived. A good rule of thumb is to think about the essence and nature of the subject and then lean in that direction. In this case, the subject is rigid and confined, and Sargent leaned in that direction.

The painting is also a good example of framing. The walls frame the sides, the trees and that white post frame the top, and the stairs frame the bottom. This contains our attention within the painting. 

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878, Frame

Play Between Light and Shadow

The staircase provides a wonderful play between light and shadow. See the grayscale below. Light dominates the left-hand side, shadow dominates the right. There are a few interesting patterns created by the lights pushing across into the shadow areas, and vice versa. The line between light and shadow zig-zags up the stairs.

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878 Grayscale

The shadows provide us with a few important clues about what’s outside the frame of the painting. They tell us that: 

  • The sun is overhead to the right-hand side; 
  • There are plants or trees around the top of the right wall; and 
  • There’s a large pillar somewhere on the right casting a shadow across the staircase. 

Tip: Light and shadow convey a significant amount of information about the subject, so it’s important to get them right! It’s also not an area where you can get away with exercising your artistic license. Not even Sargent could get away with being inconsistent with the shadows. 

I also used Photoshop to create a two-value notan of the painting. This is what the painting looks like as an abstract arrangement of light and dark shapes. The design is concise and interesting, with a bit of a zig-zag feel. (Don’t read too much into notan. I am including it here to be thorough and because some of you may find it interesting, but don’t feel like you need to look at every painting in notan form!)

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878, 2 Value Notan

Subtle Color Variance

Sargent did a great job of using subtle color variance to convey the staircase’s stone texture and weathered appearance. It looks like he gently scumbled a few different colors on top of each other to create this finish. See below a closeup from the staircase wall on the right-hand side. It may not seem that important, but subtle color variance like this goes a long way to conveying realism. It also doesn’t require much dexterity and finesse to pull off. The key is not to add too much contrast and to stay within a compressed value range.

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878

Linear Perspective

At first glance, I wasn’t completely sure what the perspective was. Am I looking down at the staircase or up at one? I had to take a moment to assess. The sky at the top makes it clear though.

Rigid, geometric subjects like this are perfect for conveying linear perspective. Notice how the stairs get smaller as they get further away and how the parallel lines of the staircase walls gently converge. I won’t go too deep on this, as perspective is a complex area with deep mathematical roots. But if you want to learn more about linear perspective, this is a good painting to study.

Hard, Soft, and Lost Edges

The painting is full of hard edges, given the rigid nature of the staircase and the strong, direct sunlight. What’s interesting is that the contrast between light and shadow creates most of the hard edges on the staircase, not the changes in form.

The nuance of the painting is in the soft and lost edges. Focus your attention on the stairs. Notice how the edges within the shadows and within the lights are relatively soft. And as you climb the stairs, the edges get softer and softer until they are lost completely and the stairs turn into a light shape and a dark shape. 

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878, Edges

Thick Lights, Thin Shadows

Sargent was more liberal with his paint in the light areas. The shadows, by comparison, are thin and flat. This is a tried-and-true strategy that helps reiterate the lights and makes the shadows appear more vague and ambiguous.

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878 700w detail 2

Other Closeups

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878 700w detail 4
John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878 700w detail 3
John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri, 1878 700w detail 1

Key Takeaways

  • Any subject can be interesting if you paint it in an interesting way and from an interesting perspective. Don’t limit yourself to only painting “pretty” or “beautiful” subjects.
  • Apart from the brightest highlights, Sargent used mostly grays and weak blues and yellows for the white staircase. But the staircase still reads as white in the context of the painting.
  • White objects are challenging to paint accurately, as we tend to see them as being lighter and whiter than they really are. This is due to color constancy.
  • The inward and closed perspective of the staircase plays into its nature. I feel like I’m right there walking up the staircase.
  • Light and shadow convey a significant amount of information about the subject, so it’s important to get them right!
  • Thick lights, thin shadows—a tried-and-true strategy that helps reiterate the lights and makes the shadows appear more vague and ambiguous.

Feel free to share your thoughts about the painting in the comment section below. If you want to learn more, you should check out my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Draw Paint Academy

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.


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35 comments on “A Closer Look at John Singer Sargent’s Staircase in Capri”

  1. Wow, this was not what I was expecting! Before I clicked on the link, I imagined a visually detailed, ‘interesting’ painting. It’s just …. white, and it’s beautiful and descriptive of a moment! I’m not expressing myself all that well, but you know what I mean. It’s ….. daunting, to pick up my brush sometimes, especially after that. Many Thanks (not meant ironically!)

    Reply
  2. So I know when it comes to painting dark colors you don’t use black you use tones close to it and I’m sure it goes the same for white. As a painter of housing I also know there are many colors of white especially ceiling white.
    In the steps here the frost third of the steps are good how ever I lose the rest of the steps because they are not painted in. If one was to stand there and look at the steps you would see all the hard lines on the steps. The human eye picks up every little detail but when it comes to painting that the details I think if everyone is put in the painting may be lost due to to much detail.
    The shadows I think are just fine.

    Reply
  3. I especially like your demonstration with the white squares. As a watercolor artist, leaving the white of the paper showing can be so tempting. This example really gives me something to think about in how to use white highlights more effectively and more sparingly. Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Thanks for another deep dive, Dan.

    I am quite familiar with Sargent’s portraiture and figure work, but I hadn’t seen this one. You do such a fine job of finding the most interesting work to discuss.

    Thanks for all that you do for us, your artist/readers.
    Gina T in NC

    Reply
  5. A beautiful study in white what a master he was looks so effortless but definitely wasn’t . Much thought was put into it as you have explained . Very interesting thanks for that

    Reply
    • I paint in alkyds and I scumble a lot. Scumble your “pure” color over a dried other “pure” color layer and a healthy eye will see both colors without merging them. (Astigmatism will blend them.)

      Reply
  6. Thank you for this very clear perspective and explanation reflecting on this piece. Your analysis helps my understanding for application in my own work. Much appreciated.

    Reply
  7. Thank you for a really interesting discussion of this painting, previously unknown to me. I have found it interesting that such a subject matter (really just a flight of stairs) could be painted and be so interesting, secondly your white squares on the different areas were really helpful in illustrating how the white was not white! The subtle shading was really impressive.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  8. You are not only a wonderful artist but also a great writer and instructor.
    Using this seemingly simple painting to illustrate so many important principles is a reminder of how most every brushstroke is important in some way. I am also reminded that, for me, Sargent is “all that”. When I’m in a gallery I always seek out his work and learn so much from close examination of them.
    Regarding lost and found edges, an instructor once had us put a sheet of clear film over Sargent’s “Ambergris” and trace only the found edges. When you lift it up, those edge tracings look like smoke curling up to the sky. Genius.

    Reply
  9. This is an outstanding analysis. Dan perfectly describes so many features, and generated a tremendous appreciation of the artist’s skill and intent. Bravo.

    Reply
  10. Excellent analysis! Sargent made the good use of white areas in his watercolors as well. It looks like he preserved the white of the paper but up close there is a slight shift in the value and hue. I enjoy your newsletter very much. Thanks!

    Reply
  11. Like you, Dan, I found the sense of perspective confusing. The little glimpse of sky really doesn’t compensate for the fact that the stairs nearest the viewer are painted as if they are descending towards the viewer, not away. The stair risers are in full view instead of the stair tops. Sargent’s use of color is great, but I still find the over-all painting a little disorienting because it looks like half the stairs are leading the viewer up and half are leading the viewer down.

    Reply
  12. Thank you Dan for your incredible generosity. As a relatively new painter, I find your advice invaluable and you have taught me so much about light and shade, colour and composition. I really appreciate the time you spend imparting your knowledge, helping fledgling artists like me.

    Reply
  13. The fact that this painting is simple but draws me in and elicits an emotional response is, well … delightful! I learn so much from your in-depth analysis of paintings, and I appreciate being introduced to lesser known works.

    Reply
  14. After looking at the painting for just a very small amount of time, I viewed it as going up and going down until I finally really looked at the tree and sky part. So this painting could be an illusion. I think I have done what you suggest in picking a subject. One day I was in my feed room of my barn. The paper bags of horse or cow feed stood out as the light hit them as the door opened. I painted it and at once thought it was one of my best pieces in watercolor. The play of light was what caught my eye.

    Reply
  15. Very astute and helpful lesson! As I revisit it more closely as your tutorial motivates me to do – I notice a bit of a weird area on the left wall, just above the vertical shadow. I don’t understand what is happening there as the left side of the stairs seems to bulge out into the wall. Could you perhaps clarify what that might be depicting or if it is a technique, what it is accomplishing by interrupting the angle of the left side of the steps receding as they progress towards the top? Thanks for all your posts!

    Reply
    • There are at least two buildings on the left of the stairs. The vertical shadow is on the wall of the building closest to you. The “bulge” is caused by the stairs being extended to meet the wall of the second building…if they were not extended sideways, there would be a dangerous gap between stairs and wall all the way up to the first landing.

      This building style is dictated by terrain, water supply and growing populations. It is frequently found in desert civilizations and islands.

      Reply
  16. What an excellent lesson, Dan! Thank you so much for sharing the details of how Sargent approached and accomplished his view of the staircase. It’s very valuable information.

    Reply
  17. What an incredibly interesting lesson in art. And on the color white to boot! I learned so much. Not only from the history but how to take my time and really study the subject. Thank you for your generosity in sharing.

    Reply
  18. Hi Dan. As always, a great analysis with lots to ponder. ( I still can’t decide if the stairs go up or down.)
    You are so generous with sharing your knowledge. Thanks so much again. Agnes

    Reply
  19. I really feel Sargent’s use of white is so strong and sensitive.
    One of my favorite paintings is “Fumé de Ambergris” and it is another white on white on white painting.
    The brooch on the garment is the only pure white (lead) in the painting.
    Check it out.

    Reply
  20. Wow! What a wonderful guide to “learn from the masters”. I must paint this to embed this learning into my brain and vision!

    Reply
  21. Hi Dan,
    Your analysis of this paintings is very interesting and it makes looking at the painting so valuable and amazing! I appreciate all the pointers and explanations of different elements. It is particularly beneficial and appealing to me since I do find difficult painting whites, specially with snow. Thank you!
    Sujata

    Reply
  22. I really liked the painting and thought the shadows were adequate. And thanks for your analysis and insight to how to achieve the same in my own…

    Reply

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