Exhibitions: John Singer Sargent Watercolors

IN CONVERSATION

Our visitors respond to this 30-second video.

  • It is exciting to share your discoveries. Would you please tell us more about what colors he used and any particular discoveries about how he made color choices? Thank you very much.

    — Emily

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Emily. The Sargent catalogue has a technical section in which my co-author and I write about the extensive array of colors Sargent used. For example he had at least 5 different yellows in his palette: gamboge, cadmium yellow, cobalt yellow (aka aureolin), yellow ochre and a variety chromate compounds such as lemon yellow (barium chormate) and chrome yellow (lead chromate). For blue he consistently used ultramarine, cobalt and Antwerp or Prussian blue. He loved viridian green but sometimes achieved green by combining yellow and blue. He also used:zinc white (sold as Chinese white), cadmium orange, burnt sienna, brown pink, Van dyke brown and a range of red and scarlet colors such as vermilion, scarlet vermilion, rose madder, carmine lake and alizarin crimson.
    With such an extensive palette he could make color choices based on the subject matter, for instance brown, and blues predominate in the Bedouin watercolors; and blues, red/browns yellows and tans in the Quarry pictures. In many watercolors scenes however (the Alps, Italian gardens, Boats and Venice) Sargent made full use of his extensive palette.

  • Don't you think that all of the X-rays and infra red and forensic analysis detracts from the lush, sensory impressions that Sargent intended? Like giving away a magician's trick?

    — David

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi David, thank you for your question. I think discovering the choices an artist makes in terms of methods and materials lends excitement to a work of art and adds to the general body of knowledge about that artist. In the case of Sargent, the more I discovered about his materials and techniques the more I stood in awe of his talent and abilities. As a conservator part of my job is to identify the structure or ‘parts’ of an art work, to determine how these parts are put together and if they have changed over time. I like this type of art investigation (like CSI but without the blood) so for me the analysis doesn’t detract from Sargent’s accomplishments. The information is there, but one can certainly skip it if so desired.

  • What are your favorites of his paintings?

    — A

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    I do have quite a few favorites. For boat scenes, I love White Ships, In a Levantine Port and The Giudecca. My favorite Venice scene is Bridge of Sighs (imagine painting that scene while in a gondola)! Some of Sargent's watercolor portraits are very riveting: A Tramp being my favorite (is this a stranger or a close friend)? In a Hayloft and The Lesson, showing Sargent's sister and nieces follow as close seconds. My favorite watercolors of showing sunlight on stone are In a Medici Villa and Corfu: Lights and Shadows.

  • I can,t grasp the purpose or content of the false color infrared imaging display. I,m a watercolor painter and want to understand sargent with as much depth as possible. Please explain. The show is so inspiring. Thank you.

    — Pam

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Pam, FCIR is a somewhat difficult concept and the explanation of the technique had to be as short as possible in the wall text due to limited space.

    Start with the concept of visible light. It is a tiny part a large spectrum of radiant energy and is limited to wavelengths measured from ~400 nanometers to ~700 nanometers (nm). Within this range are all the colors the human eye sees. Violet is ~375- 425nm, Blue 425-480 nm, Green ~480-550 nm, Yellow~560-590nm, Orange ~590-620nm and Red ~ 620-725nm. So grass looks green to the eye because it absorbs all the other wavelengths except 480-550 which is reflected back. An object appears orange because it absorbs all the wavelength except ~590-620nm which is reflect back to your eye. An object appears black because it absorbs all the wavelengths and reflects none back and conversely white appears white because it absorbs none of the wavelengths and reflects them all back. (Are you with me so far?). So think of colors in visible light as representing specific wavelenths between about 400-700nm.

    Now, if you were to employ a camera and filter which records only wavelengths above ~750 nm (infrared) absorption and reflection patterns of these same colors will be very different than in visible light. Combining visible and infrared absorbency properties (on a computer) results in distinctive "false" colors. This is just another means of identifying colors. Cobalt is blue in visible light but pink in FCIR imaging; Prussian blue, of course, is blue in visible light but deep purple in FCIR imaging and Indigo is also blue in visible light but bright red in FCIR imaging. If you remember there was color chart shown in normal light and then the same color chart shown with FCIR imaging so one had a standard of comparison for each color. This technique requires only a digital camera, filters and a computer with the Adobe Photoshop program- fairly inexpensive, while XRF (another means of identifying colors) is an extremely expensive piece of equipment. Of course, using both further confirms the identification of pigments used in a watercolor. I hope this helps.

  • So I see that you tested hi paints for lightfast potential. did you find fading colors?
    Are some of the paintings light faded?
    Are they stored in darkness as a result?

    — Doris

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston owns tiny samples of paint from each of the watercolor tubes found at Sargent's Boston studio at the time of his death. The conservation scientists at Boston have begun some fading tests on each sample but have not drawn final conclusions. However some of the paints Sargent used such as alizarin crimson and rose madder are quite fugitive to light. There is evidence on some of the watercolors that fading has occurred. This is usually noticeable at the edges of the paper where the pigment has been protected by a window mat or frame. The watercolors are stored in archival boxes and out of the light when not on view. Additionally the number of times the watercolors are on exhibition is limited as is the light used to illuminate them.