Sargent’s effortless watercolors

ohn Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain

I’ve always thought the watercolors Sargent began showing in his 50s are his greatest work, when he finally began to grapple with color. What looks like a tremendous show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers a chance to look at 90 examples:

From The New Yorker:

The way in which he could just summarize optical effects is what boggles the mind,” Carbone said. With the eraser end of a pencil, she pointed to the back of one of the statues. Its shadowed curve is the color of dark wood in water, while behind it a sunlit plant is an explosion of yellow-green, the color of a light-skinned lime. “This kind of thing,” she said, “it’s crazy!”

Sargent’s watercolors, Carbone explained, were painted in a “spectacular shorthand”: “He was a master of corrective technique—he could make alterations where an amateur couldn’t.” We stopped in front of “A Tramp,” which Sargent made sometime around 1906. A bearded man, his skin tan and weathered, seems to emerge from a forested background. His face, and especially his eyes, are clearly defined, but below his elbows the painting becomes vague and abstract, as if in a fog. Carbone pointed to the lower-left corner, a blur of green and gray. “This area was a puddled area of wash that he just wiped off,” she said. “You can even see the stroke marks.” The blurred area seemed a little punk-rock. In a sense, Sargent had defaced his own art, but the hint of casualness only makes the painting seem more accomplished.

In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent announced his retirement from the kind of society portraiture that, with the help of some judicious investments, had made him so prosperous. By then, he had already begun painting watercolors outside of the studio, en plein air. At first, Carbone explained, he painted the watercolors for himself. “In his studio, apparently, he had stacks and stacks of them, just in piles. People describe parts of his house with stairways lined with framed watercolors. He would give them as presents—there’s this joke that people would get engaged just so they could get a Sargent watercolor.” (“These sketches keep up my morale,” he told a friend, “and I never sell them.”) Eventually, though, he grew serious about exhibiting and selling them, and came to see the watercolors as a body of work in their own right.


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