Sargent's Watercolors: A Study in Sunlight
John Singer Sargent's Watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum; through July 28, 2013
"[T]o live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunlight captured and held."
— Evan Charteris, the artist’s friend and biographer
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known for his magisterial portraits in oil — think Madame X (1883-84) or The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) — but as this brilliant show in Brooklyn demonstrates, his talent was not confined to oil on canvas. The nearly 100 works on paper, culled from the collections of both the Brooklyn Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, are a study in sunlight, seen through the filter of luminous, transparent color washes.
Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent first trained there before enrolling in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He lived mostly in Europe, eventually settling in London. He had been painting with watercolors since he was 12, but stepped up production of water-colored landscapes and figure painting after 1900, the focus of Brooklyn’s exhibit.
His watercolors only traveled twice to the United States for major displays — in 1909 and 1912, both at New York’s Knoedler gallery. The Brooklyn Museum purchased the contents of the first show, while the Museum of Fine Arts swooped up the contents of the second show. The collections have been united in Brooklyn this spring for the first time since their acquisition by the two institutions more than 100 years ago.
In all, Sargent produced some 2,000 works in the medium, once telling a close friend that he painted watercolors to "keep up my morale." Painting in oil had "grown stale." His subjects range from the bleached, marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, to the Bedouin camps of the Middle East, two of his more unusual series. His travels outside the portrait studio in pursuit of his art and a more liberated style took him to Jerusalem, Beirut, and Syria (the Ottoman Levant) for five months in 1905-06 for the vivid, indigo Bedouin scenes, all now part of the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. (See Bedouins, 1905-06, above.)
European sojourns included Venice, Florence, Lucca, Majorca (in addition to the Spanish mainland), Corfu, and the Alps, the latter where he habitually summered with friends and relatives, who conveniently served as models for his lush paintings of women in flowing garments sprawled on the grass, parasols in hand. The subject: idleness. (See Simplon Pass: Reading, about 1911, right.)
His debt to the Impressionists, his friend Monet in particular, is readily apparent in these sun-drenched, en plein air works that seek to capture particular moments in time. As the curators write in the preface to the full-color catalogue, he was drawn to certain themes — "sun on stone, reclining figures tumbled together, patterns of light and shadow." White on white — light as it strikes a house, a sheet, a garment, a marble block or a balustrade — should be added to the list of themes that he returns to again and again in these works completed between 1900 and 1911. In La Biancheria (1910), a clothesline with wet linens, Sargent pays homage to light bouncing off white sheets, with shadows sketched in blue, purple and tan.
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