Exhibition explores different aspect of artist known for glamorous portraits
Wonderfully light and fine is the touch by which the painter evokes all the small familiar Venetian realities…and keeps the whole thing free from that element of humbug which has ever attended most attempts to reproduce the Italian picturesque.”
— Henry James
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known for his lavish, exquisitely painted portraits of glamorous ladies of the Gilded Age, such as Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) or notorious Madame Pierre Gautreau, better known as Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)
However, the spring exhibition at MFAH reveals a different facet of the artist’s talent. “John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors” showcases landscapes, city views and figure paintings which Sargent created during his travels in Italy, Greece and the Holy Land.
Although the artist depicted some of the most popular tourist spots, such as the Grand Canal in Venice, Villa Medici in Florence and the island of Corfu, his paintings are anything but a pictorial guide of the Grand Tour. Instead of dazzling the public with poster images of celebrated architecture and views, Sargent focuses on the most “unspectacular” subjects — a middle section of a fountain, a corner of a building, the “underbelly” of a bridge, or even laundry on the clothesline.
His true subject is the interactions of light, shadow and color, especially white on white. The images are typically cropped or tilted up as the artist, like a modern photographer, zooms in on a detail that attracted his attention.
The exhibition brings together for the first time in history two major collections of Sargent’s watercolors: from the Brooklyn Museum and from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The story of these collections deserves special attention.
Sargent regarded his watercolors as exploratory, experimental works. He never intended them to be exhibited or sold. It was his close friend, Edward Darley Boit, who convinced the artist to show his work to the public in the United States. The first exhibition took place at the Knoedler Gallery in New York in February of 1909. From the start, Sargent was adamant that the works were not to be sold. His major reason was that the paintings “need to be seen taken as a lot.” However, when Brooklyn Museum president A. Augustus Healy made an offer to buy all works in the exhibition, he agreed despite his original reservations.
There was another interested party, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Not to be outdone by New Yorkers, the Boston Museum proposed to house and, subsequently, purchase a new exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors. The artist immediately set to work and in March of 1912 the second American exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors opened in Boston.
Both exhibitions were highly successful and whetted collectors’ appetite for Sargent’s watercolors, which even led some scholars to believe that Sargent only pretended to be reluctant to exhibit or sell his work while all along he planned it as a clever marketing campaign. However, the catalog of “John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors” puts an end to this speculation. Based on the artist’s letters and diaries, the curators, Erica Hirshler of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Teresa Carbone of the Brooklyn Museum, demonstrate that the mastermind behind both shows was Edward Boit.
Sargent continued to refuse offers from private collectors to buy his watercolors till the end of his life. As popular British writer Edward V. Lucas wittily observed, Sargent’s watercolors “were not to be obtained for love or money, but fall to the lot of such of his friends as wisely marry for them as wedding presents, or tumble out of his gondola and need consolation.” Even such famous collectors and longtime patrons of Sargent as Isabella Stewart Gardner had to buy the artist’s watercolor paintings “second-hand” after his death.
“Sargent the watercolorist” that emerges out of the MFAH exhibition is significantly different from “Sargent the official portrait painter.” The latter, renowned for his unrivaled ability to convey a magnificent display of textures and lifelikeness of the sitter, belongs to the 19th century. The former, with his bold, innovative exploration of watercolor as a medium, fragmentation of the image and a free-hand painting technique, is a true 20th century artist, who intimately knows and appropriates discoveries of such contemporaneous modernist movements as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and even Cubism.
Incredulous as it may sound (“Sargent a Cubist?”), all it takes to illustrate this point is to look at the series of paintings portraying Santa Maria della Salute. Sargent presents multiple views of the famous Venetian church, none of which shows the whole building. Taken at different angles, these views zoom in on separate sections of the building — a cluster of columns, the steps leading from the canal to the entrance, a corner obscured by the shadow. It seems as if the artist were saying, “In order to truly experience what it means to be in the presence of this church, one has to look at details and reconstruct the mental image of the whole from its parts.” Unlike Picasso or Braque, Sargent did not combine all these views in one painting; nevertheless, this is a distinctly Cubist approach to a visual image.
Two circumstances in his life made it possible for Sargent, by the end of 1890s, to leave behind official portraiture. He was commissioned by the Boston Public Library to create murals on the subject of history of religion, which provided him with a steady income. He also made some lucrative investments. As a result, he could travel more frequently and pursue his own artistic interests.
Sargent often traveled in the company of his sisters and nieces and many of his works possess the immediacy of family vacation snapshots. In “Simplon Pass: Reading,” we see two women, probably, the artist’s sister Emily and one of his nieces, taking a break during a journey in the Alps. Other paintings show the company sketching en plein air, lying in the grass or walking at a distance. However, Sargent was never truly on vacation. Equipped with a portable easel and a box of watercolors, he was constantly sketching, capturing the fleeting moment, be it a bright parasol casting multicolor shadows on a white dress or the excitement of a young girl showing a bug to her aunt.
The exhibition is amazing in the range and number of Sargent’s works. Each section transports us to another corner of the world — Italian gardens, the Middle East, Venice, Genoa, Carrara marble quarries, the Alps, Corfu…. We become more than Sargent’s traveling companions — we see the world with his eyes, we re-live his experiences.
As we look at the fountain at the Medici Villa, we can almost hear the artist say, “See how the sunlight makes the cold white surface of the marble look warm and radiant?” In the garden of the Villa di Marlia in Lucca, we find ourselves standing at the side of the pool enjoying the sight of the emerald lemon tree weighed down by shiny golden fruit — a dazzling accent in the overall dark gray, green and blue palette of the painting.
Among the most striking sections of the exhibition is the one that features images from the Holy Land titled Arab Encounter. Sargent planned this trip as a research to make the biblical scenes at the Boston Public Library more authentic. Paintings from this cycle stand out for the extensive use of ultramarine color. It seems that Sargent considered this color the key in conveying the eternal mystery and attraction of the ancient biblical land and its people for Westerners.
In “Bedouins,” the artist used the deepest shades of blue for the keffiyeh (head scarf) and the clothing worn by both the man and the woman. The color is so intense that it seems to have been applied directly from the tube. Ultramarine highlights also are visible in the facial features, especially in the eyes and in the man’s eyebrows and moustache. This painting is obviously a portrait, although of a completely different kind than typical Sargent’s portraits. It seems that the Bedouins are as curious and fascinated with the artist as he is with them. Is it a symbolic meeting of East and West?
As the first American exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors was being installed at the Knoedler Gallery in 1909, Sargent requested that the paintings of the Holy Land be displayed last. He referred to them as the “pièce de resistance” which will provide a powerful finale to the presentation of his innovative and daring exploits in the area of watercolor painting.
“John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through May 26.
MFAH is located at 1001 Bisonnett in Houston.
For more, visit www.mafah.org.