Evocative Watercolors Showcase Another Side of John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, "The Bridge of Sighs" c. 1903-04.
John Singer Sargent, "The Bridge of Sighs" c. 1903-04.
MFAH Houston/Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription.

The amazingly prolific American-born John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) had already secured his reputation and fame as the leading oil painting portraiture artist of his time. But by the turn of the 20th century, he felt the medium had grown...well...as staid and stale as some of his subjects.

So as a challenge to himself -- and to allow a more fluid and faster-paced creativity -- he began to concentrate on producing watercolors. Two exhibitions of these works at New York's Knoedler Galleries in 1909 and 1912 (curated by the artist himself) were massive successes.

The entire group of Sargent's works at each show was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, respectively -- the latter before it even opened to the public.

Now, more than 90 of what one contemporary critic called "swagger watercolours" from both exhibitions come together in the MFAH's "John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors."

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"At the turn of the century, Sargent was at the top of his game, but he felt he had achieved all he could in portraiture," says Kaylin Weber, assistant curator of american painting and sculpture at the MFAH.

"In watercolors, Sargent was liberated to explore subjects and scenes he was personally passionate about. And they reveal his longstanding interest in travel. His works became highly personal, almost like a visual memoir, tracing his travels around Europe and the Middle East."

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Though reluctant at first to exhibit any of his watercolors -- which the often self-deprecating artist genuinely believed wouldn't be of any interest to people -- he was persuaded to do so by friend and fellow artist Edward Boit. Boit's works were also displayed in the Knoedler exhibitions.

And Sargent originally also vetoed the idea of selling the artworks at all; he feared that unsold paintings coming back across to his home in England would deflate his morale. But he would consider selling the entire lot instead of piecemeal to one purchaser instead. Both the Brooklyn and Boston museums jumped at the chance.

"With an eye on showing his diversity and range, Sargent selected works that represented his great achievements in the medium and resonated as a group. And he got his [purchase] wish," Weber continues.

In addition to a departure in subject for Sargent, watercolors also let the artist explore and pursue his newfound interests in unconventional perspectives, closely cropped compositions and reflected light as stylistic themes.

"By eschewing conventional views, he made many familiar subjects new again," Weber says. "He did not paint broad, sweeping views of the Grand Canal in Venice as his artistic predecessors had done. Instead, he captured the underside of a famous bridge or the prow of a gondolier's boat. This approach made his watercolors feel more intimate, and undoubtedly quite new and fresh."

She adds that Sargent's "masterful" way of depicting the play of light on various surfaces evolved through his brushwork and technique. Ranging from broad sweeps to tight strokes, and using a full spectrum of color, Sargent played with the way light reflected off stone, fabrics and water.

And while the majority of works on display showcase nature, gardens, structures and water scenes from places like Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Beirut and Syria, Weber says that her personal favorite item showcases two female figures lounging on a warm day in the Alpine Mountains.

"I would have to say that I love Simplon Pass: Reading," she says. "In that one, Sargent has beautifully orchestrated the women, their parasols and their skirts to create a stunning interplay of reflected whites and tinted shadows. No one could paint white on white like Sargent, and this painting is proof in point."

"John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors" will be shown March 2 through May 26 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-3700 or www.mfah.org.


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