Two Extraordinary Museum Collections Join Forces To Create A Landmark Exhibition of Sargent Watercolors
The Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston both purchased significant works in watercolor by John Singer Sargent. Sargent only participated in two major watercolor exhibitions in the United States during his lifetime (1856-1925). The first, in 1909, was very well received and was seen in New York at the Knoedler Gallery and the entire exhibition was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. It was in 1912 that the second Knoedler exhibition presented works which were equally praised and this time it was the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which purchased all of the exhibited works (before the exhibit opened.)
Now for the first time these two collections come together, with almost 100 watercolors being exhibited, first at the Brooklyn Museum (4/5 to 7/28, 2013), then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (10/13 to 1/20 2014) followed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (3/2 to 5/26 2014). 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).
Sargent’s Background, Training, and Professional Practice
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy in 1856 to American parents. He was descended from a New England family of merchants and shipowners. Sargent’s mother, from a prominent Philadelphia family, persuaded her husband, a promising physician, to move to Europe, where they led a nomadic life as expatriates. His mother encouraged John’s natural ability at drawing and so he kept many sketchbooks during their travels.
It was in Rome in 1868 that he received his first instruction from a professional artist. In 1870 Sargent entered Accademia delle Belle Arti, Florence.
The family moved to Paris in 1874, where he first entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts at the age of 18, then soon transferred to the private Studio of Carolus-Duran. Through this tutelage, Sargent became focused on portraiture. Carolus-Duran’s teaching was considered progressive among academic instructors because of its painterly, direct handling. There was more of an emphasis on form and color rather than line. Duran was a fervent admirer of Velazquez and a friend of Manet. Sargent painted his mentor in 1879.
In Paris, at this time there was a great deal of artistic energy. It had been in April of 1874 that there had been an exhibition by a revolutionary group of painters, which an angry critic had termed “Impressionists.”
In May of 1876 Sargent accompanied his mother and sister on his first trip to the United States, where at the age of 21 he established his American citizenship. He steadfastly clung to that status, despite living abroad for his lifetime, and despite being offered many foreign honors.
At the age of 22, Sargent was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Salon of 1878, with a painting in the landscape genre. Then, in 1879, Sargent first began to be seen as a portraitist in his own right, and less connected to the study with Carolus.
In the fall of 1879, Sargent visited the Prado in Madrid in order to study the Velazquez paintings first hand. Music as a theme became a primary theme of two important works whose foundation can be traced to the 1879 Spanish trip. El Jaleo was the second of these (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.)
Sargent’s painting career in Paris came to a close soon after his painting of the portrait of Madame X, (Metropolitan Museum of Art). This painting created quite a scandal after he exhibited the work at the Salon of 1884. This public and press indignation resulted in driving away prospective sitters.
In 1885, Sargent moved to London. England promised to bring new prospects for his career. He also resumed interest in plein air painting during that time. During 1888 and 1889 Sargent was deeply influenced by Monet, who had been a friend when he was in Paris. There was a relaxation of his attitude toward subject matter. And about 1887 he renewed an old interest in watercolor painting, though without the zest of his later work.
Sargent’s Period of Transition and Production of Watercolors
Sargent’s best period of production for watercolors began about 1902. He was 44 years old in 1900, and had become well established as the greatest Anglo-American portrait painter of his time. By then he had finished the first phase of the mural for the Boston Public Library and was progressing with the second. He was residing in his own house in London. However, as he had grown weary of the professional pressures of the portrait commissions, he sought refuge through travels to remote locations where he could paint figure and landscape subjects.
Sargent is said to have created about 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors plus sketches and charcoal drawings. He created watercolors as he traveled worldwide, to Venice, to marble quarries in Italy, Corfu, the Middle East, and North Africa.
There were hundreds of watercolors based on Venice, its gondolas, and spectacular light. In his last decade he produced many watercolors as he traveled to the American West, Maine, Florida.
Themes And Subjects Of The Exhibition
The works from the Brooklyn Museum are smaller in scale, and looser in style, while Boston’s collection includes larger works, which are more finished in execution. The visitor will see many water views of Venice, as seen from the perspective of a gondola, and Venetian architectural scenes in shimmering light. There are also Italian gardens with statues highlighted through shimmering trees.
A distinct group of the Brooklyn watercolors are of the Bedouins, a nomadic Arab tribe. In writing about his forthcoming New York exhibition of 1909, Sargent stated that “Those Bedouin things would make a sort of piece de resistance.”
There are landscapes and figurative works painted during summers in the Alps. Sargent often traveled with relatives or friends; there are many figures populating the landscapes.
A group of works from the Boston archives were created from his visits to the work sites of the Carrara marble quarries, near Florence, where he was inspired by the quarries’ strange and dramatic landscapes.
Sargent’s Technical Approach To Watercolor
In many ways Sargent’s approach to watercolor was considered unconventional. One of the more unusual aspects of the documentation of this exhibition is a focus on tools, materials, and the techniques employed in Sargent’s paintings. The outstanding publication, which accompanies the exhibition, has a special chapter which analyzes specific techniques which were used, the kinds of tools and materials which Singer utilized in creating his watercolors. Questions are addressed such as whether there was underdrawing in specific works, whether papers were from blocks or single sheets, and which kinds of brushes were used.
In addition to the works of art, the exhibition features a special section that deconstructs the artist’s techniques, based on new discoveries about his pigments, papers, drawing techniques, paper preparation and application of paint. And selected works throughout the exhibition are paired with videos that show a contemporary watercolor artist demonstrating some of Sargent’s working methods.
It is indicated that Sargent used a variety of means to achieve the luminous effects. He sponged wet washes into each other while preserving the white of the paper for the lights. Sometimes he washed over wax resist to create textures, or scratched out lines with the end of a brush or a knife, and to finalize a painting he might employ gouache or China white for the highlights. All in all his technical virtuosity and spontaneous methodology did not leave much room for making corrections or major changes. He was more reliant on his initial perception, choice of subject and location, and his considerable level of skill, so that he could produce work with speed and clarity.
In the following three examples, descriptions are provided by the Brooklyn Museum which supply information about the technical approach to the respective paintings:
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). White Ships, circa 1908. Translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, 14 x 19 3/8 in. (35.6 x 49.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription, 09.846
“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.”
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Corfu: Lights and Shadows, 1909. Translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite underdrawing, 15 7/8 x 20 7/8 in. (40.3 x 53 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“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.”
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain, 1910. Translucent watercolor and touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, 15 7/8 x 20 7/8 in. (40.4 x 53.1 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“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.”
Honors And Awards
Over the years Sargent received many honors. In 1889 he was awarded the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government. In 1896 he was elected full Academician, National Academy of Design, New York; Royal Academician, Royal Academy, London; Officier of the Legion of Honor, Paris. In 1903 the degree of L.L.D. was conferred by University of Pennsylvania. and in 1904 he received the D.C.L. from Oxford University. In 1909 he was awarded the Order for Merit by France and Order of Leopold of Belgium; L.L.D. conferred by Cambridge University. These latter honors came at a time when Sargent decided to abandon portrait painting. In 1916, Sargent was awarded L.L.D. from Yale University and the Doctor of Arts from Harvard University.
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.
John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (publication)
By Erica E. Hirshler, Teresa A. Carbone. Text by Richard Ormond, Annette Manick, Antoinette Owen, Karen A. Sherry, Janet Chen, Connie Choi.
VIDEO: Teresa A. Carbone, Curator, Brooklyn Museum in conversation with Richard Ormond, Sargent’s grandnephew and co-author, catalogue raisonné
“John Singer Sargent was a portraitist to royalty, a dazzling watercolorist, an obsessive traveler, and an accomplished pianist and chess player. Join us for a conversation with Richard Ormond, Sargent’s grandnephew and one of the foremost authorities on the artist and the man. Coauthor of the exhaustive catalogue raisonné of Sargent’s works and contributor to the catalogue for the exhibition John Singer Sargent Watercolors, Ormond will share his unparalleled knowledge of Sargent’s life and art with Teresa Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art, and co-curator of the exhibition.”
This event took place at the Brooklyn Museum Thursday, April 4, 2013
John Singer Sargent Watercolors In Sargent’s Footsteps: A Conversation
VIDEO: Erica Hirshler, Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in conversation with Richard Ormond, grandnephew of John Singer Sargent
This event took place on October 23, 2013 at the MFA’s Remis Auditorium
Richard Ormond, grandnephew of John Singer Sargent and one of the foremost authorities on the painter and the man, joins Erica Hirshler, co-curator of “John Singer Sargent Watercolors,”
In The News: Articles About The Sargent Exhibition At The Brooklyn Museum and The Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston
- 10/11/13 The Boston Globe “MFA hosts ravishing exhibit of Sargent watercolors”
- 7/17/13 The New Yorker “Sargent’s Watercolors”
- 5/20/13 The Wall Street Journal “Fluid, Evanescent Images”
- 4/11/13 The New York Times “Freedom From High Society in the Sunny Outdoors”
- 3/21/13 The New York Times Museums Section “Examining Sargent’s Shift from Oil to Watercolors”
- Donelson F. Hoopes. Sargent Watercolors. Watson Guptill, 1970
- Christopher Finch. American Watercolors. Abbeville Press, 1986
- Hills, Patricia. John Singer Sargent. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1986
- Little, Carl. The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent. University of California Press, 1999
- Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Erica E. Hirschler, T. J. Jackson Lears. Sargent:The Late Landscapes, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1999