John Singer Sargent’s innovative, informal watercolours, created for the artist’s own pleasure, enchant Matthew Sturgis
JOHN SINGER SARGENT (1856–1925) once declared that the virtue of watercolour was that it allowed one ‘to make the best of an emergency’. It’s unclear whether he was simply referring to the practical convenience of being able to whip out his watercolour box and sketchpad to fill any unexpected break in the day— a delayed train, a broken appointment, a sudden downpour—or whether he was alluding to the challenging unpredictability of the medium itself, which constantly creates its own pictorial ‘emergencies’ for which solutions have to be found. Perhaps, of course, he meant both.
They are full of celebration of the medium and enjoyment of life’
Certainly, his watercolours—dancing with light, extraordinarily sure in their deftness of touch and bold in their abbreviations of form—show how well he met his various emergencies. They are full of celebration of the medium and enjoyment of life. Indeed, pleasure seems to have been at the heart of it. For Sargent, watercolour was not only a challenge, it was also a release.
During the last two decades of the 19th century, he had established himself as London’s pre-eminent Society portraitist. His bravura oil paintings of the rich and powerful defined a world of prestige, fashion and conspicuous display, decked in shimmering silks in sumptuous surroundings. Such pictures made him a rich man.
However, success came at a price. He often found his wealthy sitters demanding and difficult, sometimes unsympathetic. It was years of hard experience that led him to define a portrait as ‘a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth’ and it was said that he had a screen in his studio behind which he would retire occasionally and stick out his tongue at the oblivious sitter. So, when he received a large and lucrative commission to paint a cycle of murals for the Boston Public Library in the 1890s, he seized the opportunity to step back from portrait painting, turning to landscapes and to watercolours.
It produced a great late flowering of work. He felt free to explore new motifs, new viewpoints, new pictorial effects; to enjoy a new, brighter palette. Some of his watercolours he used as studies for oil paintings (he hoped his depictions of Bedouin tribesmen would be useful for the Biblical imagery in his Boston murals), but most provided a private space in which to experiment and perform. As he told one friend, painting watercolours helped ‘keep up morale’. He sold very few of them commercially: some were given as presents to friends and most were acquired by three
American museums (in Boston, Brooklyn and Manhattan).
In taking up his watercolour box, Sargent was returning to the practice of his childhood—a childhood spent growing up in Europe, the son of peripatetic expatriate American parents. As a boy, in Italy and elsewhere, ‘Johnny’ Sargent and his sisters had painted constantly. He had learnt to look, and to record, with a watercolour brush in his hand. And although he had made his professional career in oils, that early experience had always stayed with him.
It was also reinforced in some ways by his choice of teacher among the Paris
salons in the 1870s. The teenage Sargent had attended classes given by the innovative portrait painter Carolus-duran, one of whose stated pictorial ideals was ‘to express the maximum by means of the minimum’. This was a maxim that Sargent found applied well to watercolour, in which forms could be made concise and telling effects could be achieved with bold sweeps of wash and broad flecks of colour.
From 1900, Sargent would spend three months each summer travelling on the Con- tinent (or further afield), together with his sisters, nieces and various friends. These were happy holiday times, but also periods of concentrated work—for Sargent at least. He loved the stimulus of new places, new sights, new qualities of light. One of his pieces of advice to his own students was: ‘Above all things, get abroad, see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen.’ It was advice that he followed himself.
He had his own established round: the Alpine summer pastures, Spain, North Africa, Rome, Tuscany and—above all—venice. He considered Venice ‘a sort of fountain of youth’ and would go there to be renewed by its magic. The city, rising from the lagoon, was ideally suited to his conception of watercolour: vivid, fleeting, sunlit. Everything in Venice seems to be in motion.
And Sargent was in motion, too. Many of his Venetian watercolours were done while sitting in a gondola. It gave him an unfamiliar low viewpoint and led him into interesting places. He rarely selected the obvious motif, preferring odd and unfrequented corners to the familiar ‘sights’: a little side canal, perhaps, crowded with moored boats, the modest houses draped with laundry, but light and shadow dancing, jewel-like on the gently rippling waters. Even when painting the famous Rialto Bridge, he depicted it from almost beneath its sweeping arch.
The notion (sometimes expressed by hostile critics) that Sargent painted ‘tourist’ views seems manifestly unjust. He had a relish for stray details, isolated from their context and given an unlikely prominence—the base of a statue, a piece of broken machinery, a corner of tiled flooring, the carcass of a boat in dry dock. Even a section of blank wall had attractions for him: a close-up detail of some Roman building, marked out in its restrained Classical divisions, provided an excuse for an essay in the formal play of light on stone.
These glimpses and ‘fragments’—incomplete, unemphatic, unexpected—are curi ously ‘modern’ in feeling, a rebuke to those who regard Sargent as an embodiment of staid convention. On his Alpine holidays, he ignored the ‘sublime’ panoramas of towering peaks and plunging valleys and focused on mountain streams, catching the play of light on stone and water. Or, on occasion, even streams without water: one
‘In taking up his watercolour box, Sargent was returning to the practice of his childhood’
picture, Purtud, Bed of a Glacier Torrent, depicts merely the scattered stones and pebbles of a dried-up watercourse. This deliberately anti-dramatic image still achieves a rich effect through the subtle harmonies of pale blues and greys.
The figure studies always seek the informal and the fleeting: people at work or at rest, dozing on the ground, lounging on steps, perched on stools. There was, however, often an element of artfulness in such apparent naturalism. While his nieces sprawled—apparently carefree— in their white dresses upon the high Alpine pastures, Sargent’s Italian servant was busy with a long-handled brush chasing the flies off them so that they could maintain their poses.
Sargent loved exploring the contrast of light and shade—under trees, on water, beneath parasols. He particularly relished the challenge of depicting it on white surfaces in a medium that did not include ‘white’ in its immediate palette. In his
images of boat sails, Mediterranean houses, summer dresses, white oxen, the marble quarries at Carrara and even an old military tarpaulin pulled over a dugout, he would make use of the whiteness of the blank page, of coloured shadows and touches of opaque white ‘body colour’ or gouache.
Light and shadow are always the principal players in the drama. And it is this overriding formal concern that ensures that, even when depicting beloved family members, Sargent’s paintings, for all their personality and charm, remain wonderfully devoid of sentimentality. That same painterly directness extends to a whole range of other figurative subject matter, from blind Spanish singers to basking alligators.
Whatever his motif, Sargent always had the confidence and the vision to simplify his forms and edit out details. In this, he was never seeking a shortcut or an easy solution, but striving to capture the essence of his subject. Under his brush, the form of an object was often delineated in a single calligraphic stroke, its shadow created with a second. Such bold abbreviations were not achieved without long experience and much practice. ‘Only after years of contemplation of Nature can the process of selection become so sure an instinct,’ Sargent once remarked admiringly of the 19th-century English watercolourist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, ‘and a handling so spontaneous and so freed from the commonplaces of expression is final mastery, the result of long artistic training’. It was also the result of energy and enthusiasm.
Watercolour is sometimes regarded as being somehow ‘polite’ and restrained, both in its practice and its effects, but there is an undeniable vigour about Sargent’s engagement with the medium. The wonderful assurance of his mark making, which in his oil portraits was sometimes condemned as ‘facile’ virtuosity, takes on a sprightly aptness in his watercolours. The medium responds to lightness of touch and swiftness of movement.
Sargent was described as starting on his watercolours ‘with a kind of genial fury, emitting grunts and groans and windy sizzling sounds between his lips… As if in travail’. He worked fast. There might be some pencil underdrawing, but most of the work was done in paint. ‘Great washes of colour’ would go on to the paper, applied with ‘huge brushes’ or even with sponges. Then, details would be built up over this ground, often using opaque body colour.
Technically inventive, he would deploy the full arsenal of painterly effects, sometimes scratching into the surface of a picture or using a wax crayon over an area of the image and allowing its water-resistant quality to achieve a stippled effect: always looking for a way to achieve the ‘maximum’ by way of the minimum, but never letting the initial energy evaporate. It is the mark of Sargent’s achievement that, in almost all his watercolours, something of that first ‘genial fury’ lives on in the sparkling image.
Something of that first “genial fury” lives on in the sparkling image’
The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) demonstrates Sargent exploring the effects of sunlight and shade on costume using thin washes of colour
A Glacier Stream in the Alps (1909–11) depicts Sargent’s sketching companion, the Italian artist Ambrogio Raffele, capturing the landscape scene in front of him
Rome: An Architectural Study (1906–7) shows a fascination with the fragmentary view
The Church of Santa Maria della Salute (1904–9): Sargent painted the church on several occasions in different light conditions
Blind Musicians (1912). Although full of pathos, the painting is unsentimental
Pool in the Garden of La Granja (1903). He relished the combination of statuary, trees and water