John Singer Sargent Watercolors
- Dates: April 5, 2013 through July 28, 2013
- Collections: American Art
John Singer Sargent Watercolors
In successive acquisitions in 1909 and 1912, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, purchased the contents of John Singer Sargent’s first two American watercolor exhibitions at the Knoedler & Company gallery in New York. These vibrant, virtuoso works were the outcome of Sargent’s newly focused engagement with the medium of watercolor after 1900. Uniting the collections for the first time, a century after the landmark purchases, the incomparable array on view here showcases the watercolors that Sargent chose to represent his finest efforts in the medium.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was born in Italy to American parents and lived his life as an expatriate. He sought his artistic training in Paris, and by the late 1870s he had begun to make a name for himself with inventive and dashingly painted portraits. Sargent made his home in London from 1886 and undertook landscape and figure subjects with growing frequency. From 1890 on, he also devoted his energies to work on an ambitious mural cycle for the Boston Public Library. With his brilliant talent as a portraitist in unrelenting demand among British aristocrats and well-heeled Americans at the turn of the century, however, Sargent turned to watercolor to renew his more independent and experimental artistic side.
For his watercolors, Sargent immersed himself in subjects to which he was enthusiastically attracted and broke decisively with conventional approaches that were methodical or restrained. The results were boldly original compositions that featured Venetian architecture, Syrian Bedouins, villa gardens, intertwined figures, and sun-struck stone and announced his intuitive reinvention of watercolor practice. When he debuted them in London in 1903, his liberated brushwork and brilliant colorism, which at times even verged on abstraction, surprised and shocked his peers. Sargent selected the watercolors for his 1909 New York debut from among his previous seven years’ work, including many, now in Brooklyn’s collection, that display a distinctly experimental quality. In preparing the contents of the 1912 exhibition expressly for the anticipated Boston purchase, he chose to execute the works on a more ambitious scale and frequently with a higher degree of finish.
John Singer Sargent Watercolors presents these extraordinary works according to the themes that inspired Sargent to improvise myriad variations, and it brings scientific studies to bear in a fresh exploration of his masterful technique. Above all, this exhibition ventures to answer the question, what makes a watercolor a Sargent watercolor?
Dolce Far Niente
Sargent used the phrase dolce far niente, an Italian expression meaning “sweet doing nothing,” as the title of an oil (on view here) that features costumed figures lazing on the grass near an Alpine stream. The frequency with which he painted friends and family enjoying such “sweetness”—reclining or sleeping, alone or together—was uncommon even at a time when many artists were drawn to the subject of sensuous recumbent females. Sargent’s watercolors of reposing figures offer a pictorial diary that reveals and revels in the more intimate moments of his life, and in the opportunity for artistic experimentation afforded by familiarity with his models and freedom from his London studio routine.
Sargent completed a significant number of such subjects, in oil and in watercolor, during summer stays in the Alps, where his willing models included his most loyal traveling companions: his sister Violet Ormond and her family, and his friends Peter and Alma Harrison and Dorothy and Polly Barnard. In these souvenirs of quiet interludes, indoors and out, where figures unwind and interlock as they surrender to idleness and sleep, Sargent used intimate interior settings, or high vantage points and cropped foregrounds, to transform the viewer into an enchanted voyeur.
Sargent once described a stay in Venice as “a sort of fountain of youth.” This singular place revitalized his art, and he returned repeatedly, making seven trips between 1902 and 1912. Fluent in Italian, he was also at home in the city’s canals and labyrinthine alleys, or calli, as few tourists were. He painted nearly 150 Venetian subjects (more than any other motif), and he used watercolor for most of them. The medium marvelously suited the water-bound character of the setting and the constant vibration of its reflected light on water and stone.
Sargent’s watercolors recorded a Venice animated by his own experience. He worked almost exclusively from waterborne vantage points, ferried by a gondolier along the frenetically busy stretches of the Grand Canal or into shadowed confines of more obscure byways, until a sculptural facade or a clutch of boats arrested his attention for the first time or in a new light. Breaking with the sweeping panoramas and traditional pageantry that had captivated his artistic predecessors, he captured vivid fragmentary slices of the water-laced city. If Sargent offered partial or interrupted views of some of Venice’s grandest architectural gems, he created an almost cinematic record of its constant motion and of the changeable colors of Venetian light.
Few subjects would seem to be as ideally suited to watercolor as sailing vessels moored in the brilliant sunlight of Mediterranean harbors. Sargent had demonstrated an interest in seaside views and marines as early as the 1870s, working in oil and in some of his first mature watercolors. The subject provided an ideal vehicle for his most enduring artistic preoccupation—the optical effects of vivid light and shifting atmosphere on color and form.
When he turned his attention concertedly to harbor subjects after 1900, Sargent appears to have approached the theme exclusively in watercolor. In selecting and organizing his compositions, he generally showed little interest in the specifics of locale or elements of narrative that had surfaced in the earlier marine views. Training his sights on traditional, wind-driven vessels, he set about creating lively transcriptions of the pathways and patterns of light reflected by water, sails, and hulls.
In Villa Gardens
Sargent was long familiar with Italian gardens when he set about painting them in watercolor about 1906. Some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque gardens of Italy had been his childhood playgrounds. More important, he had developed a deep understanding of the aesthetic ideals and design practices on which they were based. Sargent very likely drew inspiration from his friend the writer Vernon Lee’s essay on the evocative effects of “old” Italian gardens, particularly her descriptions of the visual interplay of composed greenery and sculpture in bright sunlight. Even more timely was the publication of Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), by their mutual acquaintance the American novelist Edith Wharton, which celebrated these features of Italian “garden-magic.”
With an eye to the visual effects created by the original garden designers, Sargent challenged himself to frame and animate sunlit stone forms amid dense, shadowed hedges and cypress avenues. Whether at work in the huge Boboli Gardens adjacent to the Medici family’s Pitti Palace in Florence, or in the lush settings of the Villa Reale di Marlia in the hills near Lucca, Sargent diverted his attention from their grand symmetries and deep perspectives to focus on vivid effects encountered in unexpected corners. With the finesse of an expatriate long accustomed to Italian sunlight, Sargent selected his vantage points in the shady margins of these settings.
Sargent produced his Bedouin subjects during a singular visit to the Ottoman Levant (encompassing Jerusalem, Beirut, and Syria) from September 1905 through January 1906. Accompanied by his tireless manservant, Nicola d’Inverno, he sought out remote Bedouin camps in the lower Jordan Valley, traveling on horseback with the assistance of a local dragoman, or guide. Like previous expeditions to Egypt and Constantinople (now Istanbul), this trip underpinned his ongoing work on the Boston Public Library mural cycle, Triumph of Religion, and particularly the subject of the Sermon on the Mount, which he planned to execute according to the new standards of geographic and ethnographic accuracy required of biblical subjects.
Sargent may have planned his tour with the assistance of his recent friend Gertrude Bell, a scholar of Arab culture and Levantine archaeology who had set out for the Syrian desert eight months before him. His particular interest in the Bedouins was most likely inspired by a favorite book, Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), a thinly fictionalized account of an Englishman among Bedouins in Syria and Jordan whose accuracy and narrative immediacy set the tone for his own imagery. Sargent was exceptionally proud of these vivid documents of an immemorial, nomadic society, even describing them as the pièce de résistance of his 1909 exhibition.
Portraits at Hand
Sargent’s practice of portraiture and his work in watercolor have long been viewed as opposite poles in his career, with the latter considered as nothing more than a refuge from the pressure and drudgery of commissioned portraiture. Yet Sargent painted portraits in watercolor, using the medium as an opportunity to return to a type of modern, narrative portraiture with which he had experimented in a number of remarkable oils before 1900 (including Brooklyn’s An Out-of-Doors Study [Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife], on view here). He undoubtedly knew that this more informal portrait mode was better suited to the twentieth century than the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting traditions on which he based his commissioned portraits.
With his gradual withdrawal from formal portrait work by 1907, watercolor became a kind of portrait laboratory for Sargent. He found his sitters at hand, among family, longtime friends, and individuals encountered on his travels. Sargent’s watercolor portraits did not evolve in a progression toward modernism, from more finely detailed likenesses to increasingly obscure, expressionist, or abstract ones. He varied his approach, and sometimes even achieved a compelling blend of detail and vagueness in a single work. Always evocative, Sargent’s portraiture in watercolor accommodated flashes of personality and currents of emotion that had little place in his late commissioned works.
Sargent often visited the dramatic mountains on the border between Switzerland and Italy, attracted by breathtaking vistas and the relief from summer heat. He was familiar with the region from childhood family vacations, when he painted some of his earliest mountain watercolors in a precisely detailed hand. From 1904 to 1908, he spent many weeks in and around Val d’Aosta, near Mont Blanc, and often in the village of Purtud; during the period from 1909 to 1911, he favored a more isolated setting in the Simplon Pass, which boasts the densest concentration of major peaks in the Alps.
Sargent painted extensively in oil and watercolor throughout these Alpine excursions. In both media he composed scenes that conveyed the vividness of his own experience, ignoring grand, expansive views in favor of the landscape immediately before him. In keeping with his general disinclination to paint deep perspectives, Sargent placed horizon lines high in his compositions, or omitted them entirely, and trained the viewer’s eye on foregrounds that include running brooks, banked rocks, and rising footpaths. If at times these arrangements verge on the two-dimensional, they suggest the brilliant, patterned light and, more rarely, the shifting atmosphere that a hiker might encounter during a vigorous ascent.
In the fall of 1911, Sargent spent several weeks in the famed marble quarries near Carrara, high in the Apuan Alps northwest of Florence, where he produced no fewer than fifteen watercolors. Not yet a typical touristic stop, Carrara’s approximately five hundred quarries were nevertheless long renowned for exceptionally white, translucent marble. Sargent undoubtedly was drawn by the unique drama of the site, where infinite combinations of rock faces were awash in the glare of reflected light. Undaunted by the rigors of the place, Sargent spent the nights in a hut that proved too spartan for his younger traveling companions, and he followed the intrepid lizzatori (stone-sled workmen) into the quarry’s dizzying heights.
Amid the massive walls and chaotic piles of quarried rock, Sargent once again transcribed the optical effects of sunlight and shadow on stone, using washes and wax to remarkable effect and fully exploiting the luminous properties of the paper itself. He executed the Carrara watercolors with particular freedom and energy, sometimes approaching an almost modernist sensibility in his reductive, and more expressive, description of form.
Sunlight on Stone
From the moment Sargent began to exhibit his watercolors in significant numbers after 1900, critics enlisted the word “brilliance” to describe his exceptional, intuitive record of the optical effects of intense sunlight. His command of glare and reflection grew even more striking in works from about 1907 to 1912, in which sunlight on stone became his paramount subject. More precisely, in these works Sargent turned from painting the substance of stone to painting the substance of light.
Sargent is known to have instructed young artists, “Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen, the power of selection will follow.” His own approach to painting sunlight had been significantly recalibrated by two trips to Morocco (in 1880 and 1895), where he became newly attuned to the way that glaring light tinted and dematerialized white architectural volumes. Few subjects appear to have attracted Sargent more than reflective white surfaces, whether stone, canvas sails, the voluminous folds of a skirt, or linens drying on a line. He continued to seek new settings for these explorations of sunlight, and observers continued to see in his watercolors a defiance of the accepted limits of the medium.
Exploring Sargent's Technique
Technical examinations of the Brooklyn and Boston Sargent watercolors reveal telling choices in paint, paper, and method that indicate the artist’s ease with a range of materials and techniques. When combined with scientific analysis and a study of materials available to turn-of-the century artists, these examinations provide an invaluable context for understanding Sargent’s watercolors.
Paper conservators at both museums examined the watercolors with binocular microscopes and with raking light (to reveal surface topography) and transmitted light (to reveal opacity of paper and paint as well as watermarks). Selected works were analyzed with x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to identify elements traditionally found in inorganic pigments. In addition, tiny samples from twenty-four of Sargent’s watercolor tubes were subjected to elemental analysis and tested for light fastness. Washes made from these paint samples were brushed onto paper (see display case in the next gallery) and provide a visual reference for the colors as they would have appeared when first painted. Both conservation departments carried out experiments using a variety of nineteenth-century materials to determine how Sargent created certain effects and whether he did, at times, modify his paints with additives.
Revelations through the Microscope
Examination with the microscope can provide information about an artist’s techniques and the condition of a work. High magnification makes it possible to determine if graphite was used as underdrawing or applied on top of the paint for accents and details (1). Magnification helps to reveal where wet washes meet a reserved dry area of paper (2). In areas where Sargent used scraping to remove paint, roughened fibers can be seen under the microscope (3). Magnification can also reveal multiple, individual brushstrokes (4).
Examination of the paper edges can yield historical information. Remnants of glue and gauze indicate that Sargent’s papers often came from a block (5). Small bits of gold leaf suggest that the works were once matted or framed against gold (6).
Condition problems such as fading of colors can also be confirmed. High magnification reveals a few remaining pink particles in an area where the pink wash over blue paint has faded (7). Thickly applied watercolor tends to shrink and crack (8) and, if not monitored and preserved, can lead to paint loss (9).
Infrared imaging can reveal preliminary drawing by detecting carbon-based drawing materials, such as graphite or charcoal, below the painted surface. When seen with a camera with an infrared filter, paints that appear opaque to the naked eye are often transparent while carbon-based materials such as graphite absorb the infrared and appear dark.
Infrared study of Brooklyn’s Sargent watercolors reveals his varied approach to preliminary drawing. He sometimes sketched in only a few lines (1) or limited his loosely drawn lines to features of interest (2). By contrast, Santa Maria della Salute is extensively drawn with meticulous attention to architectural features (3).
In that work the camera also detected hand-drawn, faint dotted lines, similar in appearance to transfer marks, in the architecture (4). Sargent is known to have scaled, copied, and transferred drawings, although such use of dotted lines has not previously been noted. Surprisingly, several complex and finished watercolors in the collection have no preliminary underdrawing at all (5, 6).
Certain pigments have a characteristic fluorescence under ultraviolet radiation. One of these is zinc white, introduced into the watercolor palette in 1834 as “Chinese white.” Zinc white was found in many of Sargent’s watercolors, either in combination with other pigments or used alone as white highlights and impasto.
An image of Salmon River under ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence shows a bright yellow-green fluorescence where zinc white is present in the water (see image below). Darker, nonfluorescing brushwork over the zinc-infused colors does not contain zinc.
As part of the research for this exhibition, eighteen Sargent watercolors were sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for elemental analysis to determine the inorganic pigments in each. X-rays targeted on a small area of paint will cause most elements within the paint to fluoresce in a uniquely characteristic manner. Computerized analysis of data from x-ray fluorescence identifies the elements and their concentrations in each sample.
This information aids in determining pigments (as seen below). For example, if the major constituent of a yellow color is cadmium, the pigment is most likely cadmium yellow, and if the major constituent of a red pigment is mercury, it is most likely vermilion. Interpretation becomes more complicated when a target area consists of two or more layers of color.
False Color Infrared Imaging
False-color infrared (FCIR) imaging can aid in characterizing and differentiating colorants that appear similar in normal light. Both visible and infrared images of the same subject are combined on a computer. The colors are programmed using a standard method that generates an image in distinctive “false” colors. Two hand-painted pages from a Winsor & Newton catalogue were compared using normal photography and false-color infrared imaging. In normal light the eye sees red, green, and brown hues, but in the FCIR image, the reds appear yellow-orange, the greens appear either blue, violet, or pink, and the browns appear more red (1). In another example, the blues appear pink or purple, the yellows disappear or become very pale, and the blacks and blues appear green or red in the FCIR image (2).
In an FCIR image of The Giudecca (3), the cobalt sky is pink, as are blues identified as ultramarine, but Antwerp or Prussian blue appears gray or blue violet. Viridian appears pale pink. Cadmium yellow and yellow ocher disappear, and bright red vermilion becomes a golden yellow. FCIR images were created for a number of the watercolors, including Pomegranates (4), also shown here in normal light (5).