The watercolors of John Singer Sargent are being revisited in an expansive new exhibition that combines the two largest collections of his work. A premiere portraitist of the Golden Age, Sargent painted hundreds of privately commissioned portraits, including two of United States presidents. As part of his work, Sargent traveled frequently, especially in Western Europe, and from 1902 through 1912 he also painted numerous watercolors. During this period, he reinvented himself as an impressionistic painter of the landscapes and people he encountered on his journeys.
Ninety-three of these works are included in this landmark exhibition, John Singer Sargent Watercolors, uniting for the first time the Sargent watercolor collections of The Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These works were intended for Sargent's personal enjoyment, and he resisted selling them. When he eventually changed his mind, he insisted they be sold as a group, ensuring they would be viewed together. The Brooklyn Museum obtained eighty three of his works in 1909, outbidding the MFA, Boston, which was brought into the process at Sargent's behest. At a later exhibition in 1912, the MFA made up for their earlier failure and acquired 45 new watercolors by the artist. The ninety-three watercolors in the exhibition — including thirty eight from Brooklyn’s collection, most of which have not been on view for decades — provide a once-in a generation opportunity to view a broad range of Sargent’s finest production in the medium.
Brooklyn’s Sargent watercolors were purchased en masse from the artist’s 1909 debut exhibition in New York. Their subjects include Venice scenes, Mediterranean sailing vessels, intimate portraits, and the Bedouin subjects, produced during a 1905–6 trip through the Ottoman Levant, that Sargent considered among the most outstanding works of the group. Also among the Brooklyn watercolors are Santa Maria della Salute (1904), a carefully wrought painting that explores in detail the features of one of Venice’s greatest works of architecture; The Bridge of Sighs (circa 1903–4), a vigorously painted work that captures the action of gondoliers at work; Bedouins (circa (1905–6), a watercolor of expressive force and coloristic vibrancy completed during Sargent’s travels in Syria; A Tramp (circa 1904–6), a portrait of a world-weary man notable for its intimacy and directness; Gourds (1908), distinctive for its dense brushwork and brilliant palette; and In a Medici Villa (1906), which reveals the artist’s love of formal Italian gardens and his preference for unexpectedly framed compositions.
The watercolors purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1912, were painted by Sargent with his Boston audience in mind and are more highly finished than the Brooklyn works. They feature subjects from his more recent travels to the Italian Alps, the villa gardens near Lucca, and the marble quarries of Carrara. He also did many portraits, including Corfu: Lights and Shadows (1909), a work that explores the colors and tones of sunlight and shadows cast on brilliant white surfaces;Simplon Pass: Reading (circa 1911), which highlights the artist’s affinity for luxuriant compositions of casually interlinked figures; The Cashmere Shawl (circa 1911), a work that approximates the verve and virtuosity of Sargent’s grand portraits in oil; Carrara Lizzatori I (1911), a dynamic impression of the quarry; and Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain (1910), which captures the vibrant interplay of light and shadow around which Baroque gardens were designed. The exhibition will also present nine oil paintings, including Brooklyn’s An Out-of-Doors Study, Paul Helleu and His Wife (1889), and Boston’s The Master and His Pupils (1914).
The culmination of a yearlong collaborative study by a team of curators and conservators from both museums, the exhibition succeeds in exploring the extension of the artist’s primary aesthetic concerns throughout his watercolor practice, which has traditionally been viewed as a tangential part of his oeuvre. New discoveries based on scientific study of Sargent’s pigments, papers, drawing techniques, paper preparation, and application of paint will be featured in a special section of the exhibition that deconstructs the artist’s techniques. In addition, select works throughout the exhibition will be paired with videos that show a contemporary watercolor artist demonstrating some of Sargent’s working methods.
The exhibition will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from April 5 to July 28, 2013, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from October 13, 2013, to January 20, 2014. It will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.