May 18, 2013

John Singer Sargent Watercolors @ The Brooklyn Museum

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 of American parents.  His father, an eye surgeon, and mother, an amateur artist, had given up a comfortable life in Philadelphia to live as nomadic expats in Europe following the death of their young daughter several years earlier.  John and his younger siblings grew up as travelers speaking multiple languages and an ad hoc education with an emphasis on the arts.  Despite this unconventional upbringing, John was admitted to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris on his first try, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early in his career, John Singer Sargent established himself at the go-to portrait painter for society ladies in Paris and London.  It was a very lucrative business, and his portraits, especially of children and families, are masterpieces of the genre, but he found it confining and virtually gave it up in 1907.  From that time onward he devoted himself to watercolor painting and produced over 2,000 works during his lifetime.

 "White Ships", 1908

In 1909, The Brooklyn Museum purchased 38 of Sargent's watercolors from his debut exhibition in New York City.  Three years later, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased the initial 38 watercolors for their permanent collection that now numbers 61 examples.  This spring, for the first time ever, these two major museums have joined forces and we have the unprecedented opportunity to view 93 rarely shown Sargent watercolors, plus a few oil painting for good measure.

The exhibition asks the question "what makes a watercolor a Sargent watercolor?" and seeks to answer it with not just prime examples of the artist's mastery of the medium but with scientific evidence as well.  Through modern technology including x-ray and infrared examination, art historians have examined the museums' examples to determine what techniques and pigments Sargent used to achieve his unique results.  The process' are explained to the public using small videos to demonstrate wet versus dry brushstrokes, the use of scraping and wax undercoating and the difference between opaque and translucent watercolors, to name just a few methods.  The insights provided by these instructional films add a whole new dimension when looking at the finished product.

 "Villa di Marlia, Lucca:  A Fountain", 1910

Divided into sections including "In Venice (see below)",  "In Villa Gardens (see above)", "Bedouin Encounter", "Watercraft" and "Alpine Highlights", the curators trace the travels and passions of John Singer Sargent.  In every locale, from Spain to Persia, Sargent captures not only the physical beauty of the region but part of its soul as well.

 "Santa Maria della Salute", 1904

While oil painting may be considered the supreme art form, watercolor painting is exceedingly difficult and with far less room for error.  Sargent's ability to capture details and nuances with this medium is a true testament to his virtuosity as an artist.  His fascination with reflection off white surfaces like sails, stone, and skirts is repeated and perfected again and again in works like "White Ships (top)" and "Corfu: Lights and Shadows", 1909, seen below.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was the portrait of Sargent's niece, Rose-Marie Ormond entitled "The Cashmere Scarf", 1911, shown at right.  To me, it combined the best of both worlds, portraiture and watercolor painting.  The subject appears to be in motion, turning and sweeping her gown while wrapped in one of Sargent's favorite props, a cashmere wrap.   When viewed up close one can clearly see evidence of the underlying pencil sketching, areas where the paint was scraped to expose the white paper underneath, and most interestingly, the area in the upper left corner where a "wax resist" created a different effect on the finish.

John Singer Sargent died in England in 1925 as an artist respected on both sides of the Atlantic.  While his paintings are on permanent display in many major museums, it is not often that we are treated to an exhibition of this lesser known but very important body of work.  It was a feast for the eyes and a joy to discover "John Singer Sargent Watercolors" at The Brooklyn Museum on this fine May day!

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