Monthly Archives: April 2013

Another Book of Sargent Watercolors?

Oh, my, yes!

When I buy monographs of an artist’s work, I almost never read the text. I’m just not that interested in the topics that interest art historians. This new book, John Singer Sargent Watercolors, is an exception. For the student of Sargent, this book is a must-have.

The book is a companion to a new exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and, later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. (Alas, this show apparently will not travel to the West Coast, where I live…)

Sargent oil painting next to a similar watercolor
This spread from John Singer Sargent Watercolors shows one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings next to a watercolor of a similar scene. What a treat to be able to compare them! (I know this photo doesn’t do them justice.)

The story behind this show is that Sargent only exhibited his watercolors in the States twice during his lifetime. The first time, the Brooklyn Museum bought all of them; the second time, the MFA bought them all. This exhibition brings these two collections of more than 100 paintings together for the first time in a century.

For the viewer, it’s a treat to see images of all these paintings grouped together.

For someone who wants to learn from one of the best: the book includes many close-ups of the paintings, so you can see how he did what he did. You can see how Sargent layered the paint, how he used a wax resist, or wet-in-wet. There are photos of Sargent working (including one of him with an umbrella tied to his leg to hold it upright!) and of his models, so you can see that the apparently casual images are, in fact, carefully posed. There’s even a chapter, called “Bringing Back Something Fine” that talks about Sargent’s techniques, with photos of the paintings taken with a raking light, to highlight the texture of the paper or the impasto paint.

And the book also compares a number of the watercolors with oil paintings. Apparently Sargent went back and forth from one medium to another, in yet another example of the man’s extraordinary talent. So the book shows, in one two page spread, one of my favorite Sargent oil paintings, called “Val D’Aosta” right next to a watercolor image of nearly the same thing, called “Brook Among Rocks.” Both paintings portray a clear stream flowing over cobbles, the banks lined by rocks and grass. The water flows quietly, only a few riffles as it moves over the rocky bottom. Light reflects off the bottom of the stream. You can almost hear it burbling as you look at it. And—look there—fish! He’s painted a small school of fish in the water.

As an oil painter, I have an idea how the oil painting was constructed (and I’ve seen that painting up close in person). The watercolor? Yes, ok, watercolors are painted from light to dark, and the grass is clearly wet-in-wet. But—how did he get those reflections? Even more than his portraits, IMHO it is Sargent’s watercolors of streams, mountains, and rock quarries, that amaze and humble me.

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The Killdeer and the Painters

The killdeer pair figured they’d found the perfect nesting site. It was in the middle of a wide open gravel patch at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, with lots of gray and white rocks to hide their speckled eggs in. They could see for some distance in every direction, so they could spot any raccoons or snakes coming, and could trick the predators away from the nest. They laid four eggs, and were carefully tending them to keep them warm at night and not too hot during the day.

What they hadn’t counted on was a bunch of humans and their vehicles taking over their nest area.

That Gravel Patch is a Parking Lot

The humans were a group of about a half dozen painters, myself included, who had come to paint spring wildflowers. This was the second of two paint-outs the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hosted at their refuges in the Sacramento valley.

Painters at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, April 2013. Painters scout out paintings.

Amy, a volunteer for the refuge, escorted us to go to one of the areas normally closed to the public. The refuge staff had generously set up awnings for shade, for the area was wide open. Behind us was a ditch and some willows, but the wildflowers were in a huge open area to our west. We parked in a gravel lot normally used by hunters in the fall—otherwise, few people ever came out here.

Most of us just parked our cars and started scouting around for something to paint. One woman moved her SUV to a better location. Later, someone from the refuge came in a pickup, parked where the SUV had originally stopped, then backed out and drove off. What we didn’t know was that both of those vehicles literally drove right over an active killdeer nest.

Luckily, neither of the trucks hit the eggs.

Why Is She Acting So Strangely?

We humans didn’t even cotton on to the fact there was a nest there until later, when Amy realized that this killdeer would start acting upset and go into her broken wing routine every time we walked near our vehicles.

Killdeer feigning injury.
Killdeer distract predators from their nests by pretending to be injured, like this one is doing.

So I watched her for a few minutes, when she circled back to a spot behind where those two trucks had briefly parked. There, she halted, and sat down. That must be her nest.

When she ran off again, we inched closer to find the eggs. I eventually spotted them, four specked round “rocks” among the rest of the gravel. We then marked the spot with a flag and some sticks, to prevent any other vehicles from threatening the nest. (I later found two more killdeer nests in other parts of the refuge.)

Four killdeer eggs in gravel
Four killdeer eggs are in the lower left of the photo.

And my painting? Well, it’s a good start. There’s information there I can use to make another one, with a different composition. Mostly, I’m very glad that our visit didn’t end in tragedy for that killdeer pair. It’s bad enough when insects get into the paint. Have you seen a killdeer nest?

Killdeer on her nest
Mama killdeer safely back on her nest. The flags and sticks are there to warn other humans away.

The Other Show at the DeYoung

What can one say about The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, that hasn’t been said already? Well, here’s my take: the real treat of this show isn’t the paintings. It’s the accompanying exhibition of prints and engravings called Rembrandt’s Century.

The double show (at the DeYoung, you pay one entrance fee for both) includes 35 paintings from the Mauritshuis in The Hague; and some 200 engravings, etchings, prints, and a painting or two from the De Young’s own collection. “Prints were among the most extensively collected and circulated works of art produced during the Dutch Golden Age,” according to the catalog for Rembrandt’s Century. And Rembrandt van Rijn “was arguably the most influential graphic artist of his generation.” (Today we would call this varying your price point.) And, while etching and engraving may have been replaced by photography and iPad apps in popularity today, it’s worth it to see these amazing prints, made nearly 400 years ago, by some of the best artists of their or any age.

Now, I’m not an art historian or a printmaker, so I’m not going to talk about processes or the development of the arts. What I can say was that I was awed and humbled to stand in the presence of the master’s work—and indeed of all of these pieces.

Rembrandts Shell at the DeYoung Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Shell (Conus Marmoreus). 1650. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. 9.7 × 13.2 cm (3 13⁄16 in. × 5 3⁄16 in.). Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1997.42. From Rembrandt’s Century.

Take this shell, for example. Look at the chiaroscuro—the light and shadow. Look at how the shell feels round. To me, it’s that ability to create volume and depth that distinguishes Rembrandt’s work, etching or painting, from that of his contemporaries.

And then there’s this:

Rembrandt Sleeping Puppy
Rembrandt’s Sleeping Puppy. This version is from Wikimedia.

It’s teeny, all done with finely incised lines—but you want to pet the little guy.

One of the most surprising things to my friends and me was the way some of Rembrandt’s etchings reminded us of Picasso’s. (I’m sure we’re not the first to notice this—but you just don’t get the same jolt of recognition from reproduced images in books, even though these images are themselves prints.) The most striking example of this is a piece called “The Artist Drawing from a Model.” The top half of the image is completed, finely rendered, and very dark. The bottom half is merely scratched lines, the hints of things to come. The faint model herself is beautifully sketched out. The artist—and even more, the chair in the lower left—are crudely drawn, a preliminary layout. We don’t know why the piece was left unfinished. But it sure looks to me like something Picasso might have done.

Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model
Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model. This version is from the National Galleries of Scotland. REMBRANDT.78. Etching, drypoint and burin on paper. 23.20 x 18.40 cm. Sir David Young Cameron Gift 1943 through the Art Fund.

There ARE works by artists besides Rembrandt in this show, some of them quite good. Still, to me, they just show how good Rembrandt himself was by comparison.

And the paintings from the Mauritshuis? The recent trend for museums to send their permanent collections travelling while they renovate is a huge boon to art lovers. The opportunity to see these paintings is definitely worth it. I may never get another chance to see these works in person. The Girl is exquisite (and larger than I expected—about life size). And yet…

This probably isn’t fair, but I’m going to say it anyway. The painting “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” is in a darkened room all by itself. The painting is behind what has to be bullet-proof glass in a huge free-standing display case, which is surely alarmed. The fact that museums must make such an effort to protect these priceless artworks from people who would destroy them is a very sad commentary on our society, or any society. IMHO.

Still, she is sublime. Ironically, the Vermeer makes the paintings that follow it in the exhibition look stiff by comparison. But there are three Rembrandt portraits you can get up close to, to see his brushstrokes.

Have you seen The Girl with the Pearl Earring or Rembrandt’s Century? What did you think?