In his seemingly incidental, snapshotlike views of the Villa Marlia pool garden, Sargent celebrated mossy balusters and potted lemon trees more than the imposing fountains of the river gods Arno and Serchio. At least one photograph taken by Sargent at Marlia suggests that he may have employed photography to test or record his compositions. He began the Marlia watercolors by defining the sculptural foreground elements with loosely sketched layers of contrasting colors. He then roughed in the backdrops of dense greenery to throw the glare-struck forms into even stronger relief.
Sargent’s underdrawing for the church is meticulously executed in straight ruled graphite lines, whose end points are visible at the bottoms and tops of columns. Horizontal ruled lines of the stairs are visible through the washes of the figures in the boat. In contrast, the boats and figures in the foreground have minimal underdrawing and are rendered in loose, mostly wet washes. Sargent used a sharp tool to scrape off paint and create the squiggly highlights on and around the boats. This is the largest Sargent watercolor in Brooklyn’s collection and the only one both signed and dated by the artist.
Sargent’s likeness of his adored niece Rose-Marie Ormond comes as close as any of his watercolors to his grand, aristocratic “swagger” portraits in oil. It has their characteristic sense of sweeping movement, conveyed here by her turned head and billowing gown, and the gestural description of the backdrop. Sargent delineated the features delicately, while ignoring the fine pencil lines of the underdrawing. He wrapped the figure in a cashmere shawl (a favorite prop), using deft strokes guided by drawing to suggest Rose-Marie’s grasp of the shawl from within its folds and to echo the triangular shape of her bonnet.
In this work, one of the latest of the watercolors in the 1909 purchase, Sargent used a small amount of clear wax on the right side of the larger boat in order to repel the blue washes and create highlights. This is the only watercolor in the collection from the 1909 purchase in which wax resist is found. Sargent’s use of this technique later increased significantly; most of Boston’s watercolors purchased in 1912 contain wax.
Sargent evoked the animated play of shadows across the form of a small outbuilding in this aptly titled watercolor. He added zinc white to nearly all of the washes used to represent shadow, lending them a chalky feel suggestive of the whitewashed stucco surface. Both unpainted reserves of white paper and strategic color lifting create the effect of light emerging from the violet, tan, and blue shadows on the building. The acuity of Sargent’s eye and hand is especially evident in the transitions in color along the edge where the two walls meet.
The setting for this vividly bright watercolor was the classical Renaissance garden at the Villa Medici di Castello, designed by Niccolò Tribolo to extol Cosimo de’ Medici’s reign over the nearby city of Florence. The garden was laid out on an incline, with geometrically designed box and herb hedges as a backdrop for grand fountains by Benedetto Varchi. Although Sargent featured the imposing Hercules and Antaeus fountain, he summarily cropped away the two battling bronze figures at its top and nearly erased the smaller bronze boys perched on the edge of the lower basin. He directed his eye to transcribe only the bleached outlines and tinted shadows of the wide basins and decorative stone carvings in the raking glare.
Sargent’s extraordinary virtuosity is on display in Gourds, painted in Majorca in the summer or autumn of 1908, just months before the New York debut of his watercolors. In all of his garden watercolors, Sargent relied on the pictorial framework of sculptural forms to anchor his exuberant record of vivid light falling across leaves and flowers. Here the fruits, made luminous with thin washes and exposed areas of paper, punctuate a maze of layered colors and whorls of dashed, opaque highlights.
In this beautifully executed watercolor, Sargent did not rely on any underdrawing or preliminary sketch prior to painting. The work is a good example of his frequent use of wet subtraction to lift and remove color, seen in the strong diagonal wiping marks at the lower left and, more subtly, in the man’s sleeve, his left ear, the hairline of his forehead, and the tip of his nose.
John Singer Sargent Watercolors
April 5–July 28, 2013
This landmark exhibition unites for the first time the John Singer Sargent watercolors acquired by the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the early twentieth century. The culmination of a yearlong collaborative study by both museums, John Singer Sargent Watercolors explores the watercolor practice that has traditionally been viewed as a tangential facet of Sargent’s art making. The ninety-three pieces on display provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to view a broad range of the artist’s finest production in the medium.
Brooklyn’s thirty-eight watercolors, most of which have not been on view for decades, were largely purchased from Sargent’s 1909 debut exhibition in New York. Their subjects include Venetian scenes (The Bridge of Sighs), Mediterranean sailing vessels, intimate portraits (A Tramp), and Bedouin subjects (Bedouins). Boston’s watercolors, purchased in 1912, are more highly finished than the Brooklyn works. They feature subjects from his travels to the Italian Alps, the villa gardens near Lucca, and the marble quarries of Carrara, as well as portraits. The exhibition also presents nine oil paintings, including Brooklyn’s An Out-of-Doors Study, Paul Helleu and His Wife (1889) and Boston’s The Master and His Pupils (1914).
New discoveries based on scientific study of Sargent’s pigments, drawing techniques, and paper preparation are featured in a special section deconstructing his techniques. Select works throughout the exhibition are paired with videos that show a contemporary watercolor artist demonstrating some of Sargent’s methods.
John Singer Sargent Watercolors is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition is co-curated by Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Generous support for the exhibition and catalogue was provided by The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The presentation in Brooklyn was made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation, Bank of America, Sotheby’s, and the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation. Additional support for the catalogue was provided by a publications endowment established by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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