ERICA HIRSHLER: In the late nineteenth century, a lot of artists were interested in what they called “decoration” which isn’t the same thing as decorating your living room. It was a very specific kind of architectural decoration. It was really an attempt to explore a kind of composition that had no beginning and had no end. And I think Gourds is one of those compositions.
He looks at the fruits from two perspectives at the same time. You sense he’s looking up through a trellis of gourds to the blue sky, but at the same time they’re spreading out horizontally and vertically on the picture plane across the surface of the composition and just filling it all up with different shapes and lines that move your eye around the entire square of the picture and always keep you moving, and looking at new things and having your eye see different parts of the composition.
I think one of the reasons that Sargent was interested in decoration aside from the fact that a lot of artists of his generation were doing big decorative cycles at this point was that he too was doing a big decorative cycle which were the murals for the Boston Public Library, a commission he first got in 1890 which he worked on for the rest of his life. In fact, never completing it. So this idea of how you fill big architectural spaces with art and how art can enliven an interior is very much on his mind all the time from 1890 forward.