Sunday, June 18, 2017

An Exhibition of “Sargent the Watercolours”

For once I am ahead of the game because I was sent a review copy of the catalog of the exhibition, “Sargent the Watercolours” that will open later this week at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Dulwich is technically in London but from what a tourist would consider the center you need to take some form of transportation, which is not difficult.  In any case,  it is a small museum with a great collection of old master paintings and wonderful special exhibitions. 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is considered an American Artist because his parents were American expatriates. He was born in Italy and studied art in France and, though he painted in many countries, England seems to have been where his soul was.  The press release from Dulwich refers to him as an Anglo-American artist and notes that this is the first exhibition of his watercolors in England in almost 100 years.

Sketching in watercolor was an escape for Sargent from the demands of being the most sought-after portrait painter of his day. The earlier American portraitist, Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington, complained,  "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato, and expect he will paint you a peach."  Sargent likewise confided in a friend, “I have an entirely different feeling for sketches and studies than I have for portraits which are my ‘gagne-pain’ [livelihood] – which I am delighted to get rid of – but sketches from nature give me pleasure to do…”  [A couple of weeks ago in response to my blog on drawings from the British Museum a journalist friend wrote, “Drawing has always seemed close to reporting and journalistic, non-fiction writing.  Painting is fiction, though truth may be present.”]

Sargent only started selling his watercolors in 1909 when he consigned 86 sheets to the Knoedler Gallery in New York where the Brooklyn Museum bought 83.  A second show at Knoedler in 1912 to which he consigned 45 watercolours was sold in its entirety to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

As an aside in 1994 a friend of ours, the late American portrait painter Nelson Shanks (1937-2015), invited my wife and me to visit him while he was working in Sargent’s London studio on Tite Street.  That summer he was most excited to have been painting a portrait of Princess Diana for which they had 50 sittings and she became good friends with both Nelson and his wife Leona.

Exhibition catalogs used to be lists of what was being exhibited with a brief introduction and, if you were lucky, illustrations.  Today these catalogs have a great deal of information which often includes little known or previously unpublished material   The beautifully illustrated catalog accompanying this show is written by Richard Ormond, a Sargent scholar and grand-nephew of the artist.  His co-author is Elaine Kilmurray an art historian and research director of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné.  They have been most thorough in their coverage of the artist.  The Concise chronology of Sargent’s work at the beginning of the catalog will surely make the life of researchers far easier. The exhibition consists of stunning examples of Sargent’s watercolors, gathered from private and public collections from all over.  It is divided loosely into categories such as Fragments, Cities, Landscapes, and figures though I believe one could slip some images into one of the other categories without anyone noticing. 

I won’t be able to get to the exhibition but I can pick out a few examples from the catalog that I would love to see in original.  From the Fragment category there is “The Fountain, Bologna” of 1906 lent from a private collection.  It makes me think that the photographer might have wanted to stand further back to catch the whole fountain, but then I too have often tried to capture details in my lens.

In the Cities section “The Rialto Bridge, Venice” brings back fond memories. It is also from a private collection, courtesy of The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  It certainly does capture the feeling of Venice, a city on water. The unusual vantage point of the composition is at water level, with bridge shown from below it immediately gives you the right feeling for the town.

The image I have chosen from the Landscape section to my mind stretches the category a bit but I find it compelling for other reasons.  It is “A White Ox” of 1910 lent from a private collection.  Maybe what attracts me is the fact that it immediately reminded me of an 18th century drawing in the Albertina, Vienna of “A White Bull and Dog in a Stable" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a period which was my first love.

My last example from the Figures section is what I find the perfect Sargent,-- “The Lady with the Umbrella” of 1911, which to my mind could be by no other artist.   It is lent by he Museu de Montserrat in Spain.  The face is finished and recognizable but the rest is freely sketched. The appealing image is of the second of his three nieces, Rose-Marie Ormond.  She served as a model for several of his pictures.

As always I implore my readers to see art in the original but, if a journey is not in the cards, the catalog will stand you in good stead.  You will learn a great deal about Sargent’s subjects and his use of the medium of watercolor through the book’s first rate illustrations.

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