With its warm sun and ample shade, John Singer Sargent's small, intimate and informal painting suggests a relaxed afternoon of leisure.
Two glasses of red wine await us on a silver tray on a bar or sideboard, luring us into the scene. They are proxies for our presence, and their proximity to one another, gives the air of a tryst.
We are in the dappled shade of garden arbour – perhaps an outdoor bar or café, with trellised fencing and canopy. Intense sunlight filters through the trellis and reflects off foliage, forming pools of dazzling light that spill over the shaded tablecloth in splashes of white impasto, and illuminating the sandy floor.
Sargent is attentive to the play of light and the way that objects reflect light and colour from their surroundings. He paints with a loose flickering brushstroke, without reworking or blending the paint, to create an Impressionist effect of immediacy and freshness.
The juxtaposition of still life and sunlit scene is deliberately abrupt, with the dark edge of the bar, veering sharply across the foreground. The artist manipulates space, and creates pattern through the repetition of shapes, such as the circular rims and bases of the wine glasses on the circular tray and the diamond-shaped patch of sunlit floor that echoes the diamond pattern of the trellis.
The picture is composed around a set of repeating right angles: those of the canopy, distant garden wall, trellis fence and table. The foreground sideboard, representing the third side of the rectangle, emphasises the box-like construction of the picture space. Later, the art critic Roger Fry was to admire the painting very much, saying that he delighted in the visual relationships between forms, which he enjoyed for their own sake.
Although retrospectively dated 1874 on the canvas, it was probably painted the following year either at Saint-Enogat in Brittany, where Sargent spent the summer of 1875, or in the picturesque village of Grez-sur-Loing in the forest of Fontainebleau, where Sargent, aged about 19 years old, would hang out with his fellow students from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
This summer we look forward to good times with friends outdoors. Let’s savour these moments, that are all the more special for the wait.