Magazine article New Criterion

"John Singer Sargent Watercolors"

Magazine article New Criterion

"John Singer Sargent Watercolors"

Article excerpt

"John Singer Sargent Watercolors"

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

October 13, 2013-January 20, 2014

Spend enough time in Boston and you will find yourself fronted by John Singer Sargent's vaguely austere virtuosity. His mural work has the knack for seeming even grander than it is, possessing a rococo classicism that can feel somewhat like a formal textbook lesson--on Greek mythology--made visual. His portraits, which provided a goodly chunk of his sizable income, flatter, but coolly. Women tend to become slimmer in them, men are made more regal, as though the sitter's internal qualities have been cleaned up, formalized, and distilled into an outward image meant to please. That iteration of Sargent, for all of the bravura skill, can be a touch stiff.

So one might say that this large exhibit--it fills a dozen rooms--of Sargent's watercolors is akin to what one experiences when, say, leaving behind Samuel Richardson's Clarissa for the open wealds of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. For what we have here is Sargent cutting loose in a way he never did in his more formal oils and murals.

These ninety-two watercolors were rendered between 1902 and 1911 in Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Alps, Syria, Palestine, Italy, and Switzerland. Sargent was basically done, at this point, with elaborate portraiture. He had also had his fill of murals, too, and what one experiences throughout this exhibit is a painter painting for himself after a distinguished career of earning. In fact, as the show's co-curator Erica Hirshler, of the MFA, discovered in her researches, Sargent never intended the watercolors to be for sale. One pictures the musician recording informally for his own pleasure late in the night, perhaps, as an analogue to this period of Sargent's life, or the writer penning a story intended to amuse close friends. In that spirit then, this is about as warming as painting gets, with Sargent clearly having a blast and, at the same time, coupling his standard virtuosity with something more pliable, more organic.

This is a joint museum effort. Along with Hirshler, the Brooklyn Museum's Teresa Carbone co-curates the show, and many of the watercolors are drawn from that institution, where the exhibit had its first stop. It is organized thematically, rather than chronologically, but there is wide separation in subject matter, so one can settle in a given room, feel a kind of congruity, and then feel a different kind in the next.

The first gallery, for instance, has a Venetian emphasis. The depiction of water is a key component of Sargent's watercolors, and in From the Gondola (about 1903-04) and All' Ave Maria (1902-04) we see how mutable Sargent's painted water can be. In the former, the title craft melts into the surface it floats upon. In the latter, long, unblended strokes serve to create a kind of abstraction in which waterway, two charcoal-colored wisps of human form, and a most limpid building--so limpid as to be almost transparent--come together in a bustle of flow and movement.

Further into the exhibit, the blues tend to darken, going from aquamarine to a rich, deeply sapphire-esque quality in Boats Drawn Up (ca. …

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