Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Great Sargent

 John Singer Sargent, The Bridge of Sighs, about 1903-04, translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite and red pigmented underdrawing, 9 15/16 x 14 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York
A much anticipated exhibition, John Singer Sargent Watercolors opened this Friday at the Brooklyn Museum, and without a doubt it met every expectation and more. Four large rooms filled with 102 works by the artist, most of them watercolor, will surely please and amaze visitors. This exhibit brings together for the first time two collections from the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, respectively. In the long and successful career of the artist, Sargent only participated in only two watercolor exhibitions in the United States. The first show took place in 1909 in New York and Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum bought it as a whole. The second exhibition took place in 1912 and its entire content was purchased by the MFA. As the catalog accompanying the current exhibition states, "together they trace Sargent's path across Europe and the Middle East as he explored the subjects and themes that habitually attracted his attention: sunlight on stone, reclining figures, patterns of light and shadow."
 John Singer Sargent, All'Ave Maria, about 1902-4, translucent and opaque watercolor, 10 x 14 1/16 inch, Brooklyn Museum, New York
Soon as you walk in to the exhibition you are greeted by three watercolors which show Sargent's mastery of landscape, figure, and still life. One of those pieces is Mountain Fire, below, a stunning almost abstract arrangement of blues and warm pinks depicting one of many mountain scenes in the show. This was a very difficult piece to look away from, I have to say I was mesmerized and this was only the beginning of the exhibition.
 John Singer Sargent, Mountain Fire, about 1906-7, opaque and translucent watercolor, 14 1/16 x 20 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York
It is hard to say what part of the exhibition I liked most, all of Sargent's watercolors on display are masterpieces of luminous color and confident strokes of genius. If I were to choose, the first room had me at hello! In this first part of the exhibition the viewer is presented with visions of Venice, a subject that was painted by Sargent more often than any other. The beauty of a mystical place like Venice combined with Sargent's bravado create a symphony that is sure to send you spinning and dancing in the gallery. I know it sounds like a cliche but that's how I felt, I kept moving from one piece to another and then going back, it was a constant back and forth, side to side dance that had me smiling from ear to ear.
 John Singer Sargent, Boboli Gardens, about 1906, translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite underdrawing, 10 x 14 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York
Perhaps what came as a surprise to me was finding out about Sargent's use of opaque watercolor applications. To watercolor purists the white of the paper is what is used to show highlights, you're supposed to paint around these areas which for anyone not well experienced in the medium can be difficult to do. Sargent used thick applications of white watercolor paint and it would sometimes be mixed or glazed over with other colors. Most highlights were achieved using this technique, as an example, in the painting above Sargent used thick white and yellow to get the sun spots on the ground at the bottom left. Opaque white watercolor was also mixed to create misty effects, specially when painting some of the mountain scenes. His approach to watercolor was very similar to the way one approaches oil painting which I connected with immediately.
 John Singer Sargent, Bedouins, 1905-6, opaque and translucent watercolor, 18 x 12 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York 

 John Singer Sargent, Corner of the Church of St. Stae, Venice, about 1913, oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 inches, Private Collection
As part of the exhibition some works on canvas were included as well, most of them executed during the same period and at the same places the watercolors focused on. I can't denny that I wasn't excited to see some oils, some of them very well known works I've never had the chance to see. Take the painting above as an example, a beautiful Venetian painting in private hands. I found it incredible how the oil paintings were treated in a fluid, watercolor like manner. Some of that technique is most apparent in the elements describing the structure of the white building on the right.
 John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain, 1910, translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, 15 7/8 x 20 7/8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 John Singer Sargent, Pomegranates, 1908, opaque and translucent watercolor with graphite underdrawing, 21 1/2 x 14 3/8 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York

 John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: The Lesson, about 1911, translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, 15 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of the great things about this exhibition is the amount of attention placed on Sargent's technique. Throughout the galleries, small video screens show a watercolor artist recreating nearby paintings like a step by step tutorial of how anyone, if interested, can achieve some of the same effects. Xray and infrared imagery also helped dissect some of the pieces, revealing Sargent's secrets.
 John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910, translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
 John Singer Sargent, Gondoliers' Siesta, 1902-3, watercolor and ink, 14 x 20 inches, Private Collection
Trying to put this show in words has been a difficult task, nothing can describe how overwhelmingly beautiful each painting is. One visit is not enough, there is so much to take in and if you're a fan of Sargent's work then this show will capture your heart and send you spinning off your axis.
John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, 1904, translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite underdrawing, 18 3/16 x 23 inches, Brooklyn Museum, New York

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