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.
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.