Lines and Colors art blog

More on Sargent watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum

More on Sargent watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum
As I reported back in May (don’t say I didn’t give you advance notice on this one), there is a once-in-a-lifetime show of ninety-three of John Singer Sargent’s dazzling watercolors, supplemented with nine beautiful oils, at the Brooklyn Museum until July 28, 2013.

The show then moves to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it will be on display from October 13, 2013 to January 20, 2014. The exhibition draws on the strong collections of Sargent’s work in both museums.

As I had hoped, I was able to get to the show in Brooklyn, and… wow. Just wow.

I’ve insisted for years that Sargent should receive greater credit as a painter — credit he is finally receiving, along with increased recognition and popularity — but my already high assessment of his skills was raised even further by this show.

One thing that struck me in particular about Sargent’s approach to watercolor as revealed in the exhibition, was the way he pushed his medium in the service of his attention to the image. While I have no doubt that Sargent’s refined oil portraits were crafted with superb attention to their archival qualities, his watercolors were primarily done for himself, likely with less thought to their value as paintings. This was Sargent traveling, enjoying life, escaping from the demands of his society portraits and indulging in painting for the pleasure of painting.

In his use of watercolor, Sargent was anything but a purest, mixing transparent and opaque watercolor (gouache), using drybrush, wax resist, scratching out, and laying on the paint from the tube — both transparent and opaque paints — so thickly as to pass the limits of the paint to dry properly, leaving a few images, notably from the Bedouin series, cracking from their overly thick application.

The show, which is superbly curated, arranged and annotated, points this out, devotes considerable attention to his technique, and even displays of some of Sargent’s own materials, including still wet tubes of his paints from which conservators in Boston made test swatches of some of his colors.

The exhibition also includes nine superb oils (that in themselves would make a terrific exhibition), and gives an unusually opportunity to compare his approach to similar subjects in the different mediums (images above, bottom four).

If you can seen the exhibition, I recommend it highly. If not, I’ve listed some of my previous posts below with links to some online resources.

Having seen the exhibition catalog, which is certainly nice enough, I will still recommend The Watercolors of John Singer Singer Sargent by Carl Little as much as (if not more than) the catalog.

Though there are other artists whose command of watercolor is on a level with Sargent, notably Winslow Homer and some of the 19th century British watercolorists, I doubt that any could be considered conclusively his better.


8 responses to “More on Sargent watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum”

  1. Thank you for this post.
    Sargent surprising freshness and eloquence.
    And the color …

  2. Thanks, Charley–can’t wait to see it. On his blog Citizen Sketcher, watercolor painter Marc Taro Holmes also has an exhibit review where he analyzes Sargent’s technique with tremendous insight (and juicy closeups):

    1. Thanks, James. A great article. Interesting that he pulled out two of the same examples I did. His photos are better, though.

  3. Don O'Shea Avatar
    Don O’Shea

    We were staying in Brooklyn last weekend and went over to the Museum to see the exhibition. I was, as you said, “terrific.” You get the feeling Sargent had had it with the 10 sittings per portrait and days in the studio. The brushwork appears to be so fresh. But the curators note the he really punished the the sheet to get the effects he wanted.

    It is astonishing that in 1908 the director of the Brookly museum managed to buy 83 of Sargent’s watercolors for $20,000.

    One drawback to the exhibit is the wall captions in the gallery. What exhibit designer would use white untralight sanserif type on an orange wall?! It is darn near impossible to read them until you’re within 4 feet of the wall! Not only is it inconvenient for observers, but it results in people to huddling on the captioned side of the piece, and it slows down everyone’s progress through the exhibit. In some instances, I saw viewers give up entirely and just move on.

    Whatever was the designer thinking!

    1. Thanks, Don.

      Yes, as well annotated as the exhibit was, you’re correct about the design of the wall captions. As a designer myself, I’ve seen this all too often — it’s a simple case of a designer “designing for other designers”, and not for the practical application.

  4. Charley, thanks for the heads-up on this show, I will definitely get down there before the end of the month! Interesting comments on Sargent’s watercolor technique. If it were any other artist, I would simply say he fell into the trap of using watercolors like the oils he was accustomed to. but I don’t think Sargent had any traps!

  5. I forget that to most (non-artists?) he is known for his society portraits but to us artists he IS more.

    Nothing like seeing Sargent’s work in person. Since there are only 2 or 3 here on the west coast I don’t get to see often. However there was a show of his work at LACMA in 2003 I think and it was so good I had to go twice.

    There was a large oil at the show that I could not break myself away from… funny I can never seem to find it anywhere, online or in books.
    It is very similar to the one above at bottom, but I remember it being a wider format.

    Anyone who can should see this exhibition.

  6. Susanne E. Avatar
    Susanne E.

    I am green with envy! I would love to see that show!