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…)
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.