Unlocking the Riddle of John Singer Sargent at the Brooklyn Museum

John Singer Sargent's "Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge," 1909
(© 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

At the center of the critical debate over the status of John Singer Sargent's watercolors lies the question of their relation to his far more famous landscapes and portraits in oil. Were these a frustrated professional's non-commercial, modernist experiments, or simply “diaries in water-colour” that portray “exactly what the upper-class tourist sees,” as Sargent's indefatigable critic Robert Fry wrote in 1926? The exhibition “John Singer Sargent Watercolors,” which pools the holdings of the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and is currently on view at the former institution (through July 28, after which it travels to the latter, and then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), chiefly favors the first thesis, though it by no means settles the debate.

“It's all wrapped up in his giving up of portraiture,” the Brooklyn Museum's Teresa A. Carbone, who co-curated with the MFA Boston's Erica E. Hirshler, said during a walkthrough. “This is an artist who's trying to get away from that part of his work.” Sargent, who all but shut down his lucrative portraiture business after he turned 50 in 1906, had been painting watercolors since he was 12, and this is where his engagements with the modernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries register most plainly. A close friend of Claude Monet who was also influenced by Camille Pissarro and Edouard Manet — whose ethereal watercolor “Irises” (1880) he bought at an 1885 studio sale when he was living in Paris — Sargent comes off as a card-carrying Impressionist in many of his watercolors.

The 93 examples in this exhibition were almost all purchased by the Brooklyn Museum and the MFA Boston from two shows at New York's Knoedler Gallery in 1909 and 1912. Sargent insisted that the works in those exhibitions, which he'd been reluctant to show and marked the first major presentation of the lifelong expat's watercolors in America, be sold in their entirety, with Brooklyn buying up 83 of the first exhibition's 86 works for about $20,000, and the MFA pre-purchasing the second exhibition before it even opened. Selections from those two purchases, plus nine oil paintings, are exhibited in a series of thematic galleries whose walls are painted a striking shade of orange, a surprising choice that helps set the luminescent compositions aglow. “As opposed to a rich blue or green that absorbs color,” the Brooklyn Museum's director Arnold Lehman explained at the exhibition preview, “this orange — or pumpkin, or clementine — really makes the colors pop.”

The exhibition's most engaging series are the landscape and cityscape paintings devoted to Venice (1902-04), Italian gardens (1903-1910), and rock quarries in the Italian Alps (1911), as well as a few countryside paintings from England, France, and Spain that could be mistaken for Paul Cézanne's radical Post-Impressionist canvases of just a few years earlier. Works like “Magnolias” (circa 1908) and “Gourds” (1908), both tightly cropped paintings of details from Italian gardens, flirt with abstraction in large areas made up of dots, dashes, and drips of colors. In “Port of Soller,” also from 1908, Sargent distills the Spanish port on Mallorca to a warm, geometric composition of blue quadrangles and orange lines evocative of Georges Braque's proto-Cubist renderings of l'Estaque.

Sargent's paintings of Venetian canals and Italian gardens subvert the conventions of the day more subtly, too, with surprising angles, framing devices, and jarringly truncated views. About half of “Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge” (1909), for instance, consists of the dark, triangular underside of a bridge, the water of the canal below inflecting it with light patterns he rendered through a subtle layering of washes. Virtually all of his Venice watercolors were painted from gondolas, making for unusually low angles of vision, some of them partly obstructed by the bow of his craft. His paintings of Italian gardens almost unanimously eschew conventional perspectives, offering views of the backs and sides of marble statues, while others are immersed in patterns of light and shade.

Renderings of sunlight dominates the exhibition's final gallery, which is devoted to his 1911 paintings of marble quarries near Florence and a thematic selection titled simply “Sunlight on Stone.” “He's painting stone less than he's painting light,” Hirshler said of the works in these sections during the exhibition preview. Paintings like “Carrara: Little Quarry” and “Carrara: Monsieur Dervillé's Quarry” consist chiefly of pale, contrasting color washes that convey the warm yellow of Mediterranean sunlight and the rich orange of the earth. The dark shadows between massive blocks of stone and an occasional quarryman lend volume and scale to images that might otherwise register as pure abstraction.

Still, certain pieces in the “Sunlight on Stone” section, as well as some of the boat and port paintings found in the “Water Craft” section, lend credence to Fry's critique. Works like “White Ships” (circa 1908) or “In a Levantine Port” (circa 1905-06) come off very much as pages from a watercolor diary, and echo a complaint lodged in 1908 by the Morning Post's art critic who wrote that in Sargent's watercolors, “Everything seems to be represented with an equal vividness and skillful indifference.” Architectural compositions like “Genoa: The University” (circa 1911) and “Villa Falconiere” (1907) portray light and perspective masterfully, but offer little else of interest. But such a complaint barely seems worth articulating in light of the nearby painting “Corfu: Lights and Shadows” (1909), which tracks the shadows cast by tree branches on the white wall of a small shack in vivid hues of turquoise, blue, purple, yellow, and orange. One of the exhibition's stand-outs, that Fauvist-toned piece marks another moment of convergence between Sargent and the contemporaneous modernist movements from which art historians have typically kept him cloistered.

Rather than firmly designating Sargent as an unheralded avant-gardist or a Sunday watercolorist, “Watercolors” supports both camps, finding formal daring and conventional choices among this career oil painter's more personal pursuits. The image of the artist as a middle-class traveler is inescapable. “By the early-1900s virtually every wealthy American industrialist either wants or has a Sargent oil portrait,” Hirshler noted. By then he had also bought a house on London's plush Tite Street and begun a major mural commission for the Boston Public Library. His oil portraits and landscapes made him one of the most successful artists of his time, and their huge popularity only makes the formal daring of his less-famous watercolors more startling and revelatory.

John Singer Sargent Watercolors” continues at the Brooklyn Museum through July 28. To see highlights from the exhibition, click the slideshow.