Sunday, June 16, 2013

John Singer Sargent Watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Simplon Pass:  Reading 
While books were the order of the day on my recent trip to New York, I couldn't miss the opportunity to  visit the Sargent Watercolors exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  After all, Sargent is the artist whose work will be featured in the Fine Arts Festival at the Visual Arts Center in November.   (Much more about that to come in the months ahead.)   It is a gorgeous show comprised of 93 watercolors from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.      

The show was broken into ten different themes.  I seem to have come away with a list of only nine:  Italian Villas and their Gardens, Venice, Portraits at Hand, Bedouin Encounter, Watercraft, Dolce Far Niente ("sweet doing nothing"), Alpine Heights, Sunlight on Stone, and Quarry.   I clearly was too excited about the show to focus on my reportage!  Each portion of the show seemed to be more beautiful than the last.  In fact, I can't remember going to an exhibit and being taken with so many of the paintings.
La Biancheria (1910)

Sargent's watercolors have an amazing translucence and luminosity.  His ability to give white objects (both in pieces like this stunning painting of laundry hung out to dry and his scenes from Italian Carrara marble quarries) so much color and depth was only one of my take-aways from the show.

A Tramp (1904)
Sargent is well-known for his gorgeous oil paintings of society figures.  (Think Portrait of Madame X, probably his most well-known work.)  Many of these portraits were commissioned works.  In contrast, Sargent's watercolor portraits feature people Sargent came into casual contact with (like this well-heeled "tramp") and apparently provided a welcome break for him from the pressures of pleasing his clientele.  Sargent is quoted in Stanley Olson's book on the artist as having said, "Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working...What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter..."   No such niceties were required when he was doing portraits of subjects "at hand."

La Riva (1903-1904)
Sargent traveled extensively throughout his life, but it was Venice that he called his "fountain of youth."  He said that he felt his art was revitalized just by being in the beautiful city.  While a separate portion of the show featured Sargent's interest in watercraft, you can see his love of the water and boats in his Venetian paintings as well.  Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, to learn that Sargent spent some time in his later life in Florida, working primarily in watercolor.  I in fact was surprised to learn this, though, and am looking forward to learning more about his time here during the Fine Arts Festival.

Bedouins (1905)
I would be remiss not to mention Sargent's Bedouin paintings, which are lush and exotic.  Almost all of the Sargent watercolors in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's collection were part of his 1909 exhibit that debuted his watercolor work.  Sargent called his Bedouins the "piece de resistance" of the 1909 show.  These works were inspired both by his travels--this time to the Middle East--and by one of his favorite books, Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles Montagu Doughty.

The aptly named
Simplon Pass:  The Lesson (1911)
One of the unique features of the show was its efforts to educate viewers about Sargent's artistic techniques.  This focus was evident in both the descriptions of the works (for instance, the commentary about La Biancheria, shown above, explains that it was painted on wet sheets of white paper) and in education stations throughout the exhibit that explored topics like the materials that Sargent used and the extent of his preliminary drawings for the works.  (I learned that an infrared inspection of his work A Tramp, shown above, revealed no underdrawing or preliminary sketch beneath the paint.)  There were pictures of the types of brushes he used and an explanation of the magnification process used to study where paint was removed from works and his individual brush strokes.  The Museum's website even includes a Q&A in which Toni Owen, senior paper conservator, responds to questions that visitors to the Museum raise about Sargent's techniques.  As a non-artist, I found the information fascinating.  I suspect that an artist visiting the show would come away both with an even greater appreciation of Sargent's watercolors and a few tricks of the trade to try when she gets back to her canvas.

The Sargent Watercolors show will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through July 18th.  Get there if you can!  It is truly a beautiful show.  Having gotten a taste of Sargent's work, I'm more excited than ever about the Fine Arts Festival in November.  Make sure to join us if you're in this neck of the woods!

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