Pri­vate im­pres­sions

John Singer Sar­gent’s in­no­va­tive, in­for­mal wa­ter­colours, cre­ated for the artist’s own plea­sure, en­chant Matthew Stur­gis

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - More than 80 of Sar­gent’s wa­ter­colours will be on dis­play in ‘Sar­gent: The Wa­ter­colours’ at Dul­wich Pic­ture Gallery, Lon­don SE21, June 21 to Oc­to­ber 8 (020– 8693 5254; www.dul­wich­pic­ture­gallery.

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

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