Exhibitions: John Singer Sargent Watercolors


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.

  • Hi Toni,
    I am very curious as to what did he use for the "soft wax" resist? Which I think he placed before he started painting to mark the areas for himself, do you think that he used the wax instead of white for the surprise textural element it added to his work?
    I have been coming to the museum since I was a child, I took painting, and drawing and other classes on this very floor and others before this space was added to the Museum ! the teachers were great. There was a wonderful Art Supply store here also !
    Sargent was my favorite artist and I like the other ppl that commented do water color painting also, but I think he was my inspiration.
    This is a fantastically Amazing show that I don't believe could have been better.
    Thank You Brooklyn Museum, Rochelle

    — Rochelle

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Rochelle,
    We did not test the wax found in most of Boston's watercolors and in one of ours. However we did do mock-ups using carnuba wax, beeswax, paraffin and microcrystalline wax. They all behaved in a similar fashion as a repellent of the watercolors applied over them. The Metropolitan Musuem of Art did test the wax found on one of their Sargent watercolors and determined it was carnuba wax mixed with a resin. Sargent may have been fairly unique in his use of this material as a resist. Toni

  • Did Sargeant use photographs as aids for these?

    — Fred

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Hi Fred,
    No I don't think Sargent used photographs as an aid in making his watercolors. His style was far too spontaneous for him to work from a photograph.There is evidence that Sargent staged some of his outdoor scenes by arranging his friends and their parasols in certain positions. In the exhibition there is a blow up of a photograph of Sargent painting Simplon Pass: Reading in which you can see the almost finished watercolor on the easel in front of him. The cameras brought along on the painting expeditions seemed to be mostly by his friends documenting their outing.

  • How do you store these when not on display? In frames and mats? Flat? In plastic?
    Ruth westfall

    — Ruth

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Thank you for your question, Ruth. We store the watercolors in their mats with acid-free paper slip sheets. These are then stored flat in archival boxes. The frames are stored separately.

  • Hi
    What is the difference, if any, between opaque paint and gouche

    — Lisa

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    The only difference really is that opaque is a general term while gouache is a specific term. Some commercially prepared colors are sold under the name "gouache". However an artist could use watercolor mixed with zinc white to create his/her own opaque paint. So unless one is certain the artist bought the commercially prepared tube called "gouache" it is better to describe the paint as opaque.

  • Did you repair some of. His paintings?

    — David Luisa Therese/

    Toni Owen Senior Paper Conservator replied

    Thank you for your question. Yes. One of the greatest conservation concerns with Sargent’s watercolors are the areas of very high, thick paint (impasto). Thickly applied watercolor can develop large and small cracks caused by the evaporation of water. Over time the cracked paint can become loose and is in danger of detaching. Using a microscope, all areas of impasto were checked for stability and where loose paint chips were detected, they were treated with a small amount of adhesive inserted beneath the chip to secure it. Two examples of this are "Gourds" and "La Riva."