Tag Archives: John Singer Sargent

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.

A Visit to the MFA

I recently had the chance to spend two afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (An admission is good for two visits within 10 days.) I was visiting Massachusetts for a cousin’s wedding, and decided to indulge. I know museums can foster a strange perception of art—that good art should be in museums, not in homes—but I love them. Whenever I travel somewhere, I seek out the local art museum to see what I can learn.

MFA Boston Main Entrance
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This is the main entrance along Huntington Avenue.

That visit—and thinking about this blog post—got me thinking about the role of museums in today’s culture. I’ll probably post more about that in the future. But for now, some first thoughts:

An art museum can show you want good art can look like*, and what to look for in art. Think of Sargent’s “masterful” brushstrokes—everyone call them that—or Monet’s use of color or the energy behind Joan Mitchell abstracts or Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Museums can be repositories of culture, from ancient Greek ceramics to Franz Bischoff’s paintings on porcelain vases. And they can educate you on the history of art or of a country. One of my biggest surprises at my visit came when I recognized the name of an American painter I’d first heard of only a week or two before—on Antiques Roadshow. After that, I started seeing other things by artists or companies I’d seen on the Roadshow: a giant ceramic jug made by a former slave named Dave; fine early American furniture, revolutionary period silver (this is Boston!). And then there was the Tiffany stained glass and East Asian Buddhas.

So, as a first impression, art museums can give you an idea of some of the things a culture values: the kind of artwork, furniture, jewelry, porcelain. They can teach you about taste and style and perceptions in other eras, other places, before photography or even lithography made it possible to reproduce images inexpensively. Gilbert Stuart, for example, is said to have made many portraits of George Washington from the one that was used for the dollar bill, the “unfinished” portrait.

And, for an artist, if you look closely, you can learn a bit about how other artists tackled the subject matter that challenges you. The advice to young writers is to “read everything.” I’d say the same for painters and sculptors and jewelers: look at everything. Learn what’s been done before, learn from the best.

And I can’t forget the goslings.

Goslings napping on a sidewalk in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
These goslings had decided to take a nap in the middle of the walkway in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The second day I visited, I walked for a bit along the Fenway behind the museum, where I encountered this family of geese. They had decided to take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve no idea why. They all woke up a few minutes later, but were still on the sidewalk when I left.

Do you visit art museums? What do you like or dislike about them?

(*) except they are vested in modernist art, too—more on that in a future post.