John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted watercolors almost his whole life and became one of the supreme masters of the medium. Born in Florence to expatriate American parents who were obsessed with European culture, Sargent spent his childhood vagabonding around the Continent in his parents' unusual pursuit of vacation as education. (His father, a New England surgeon, taught him science; his mother, a neurasthenic artist, taught him culture and watercolor painting.) Sargent drew compulsively as a youth and was set on a painting career by age 13. He attended classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence before enrolling in 1874 (at age 18) at the Paris École des Beaux Arts and in the workshop of the fashionable portrait painter Carolus-Duran (Charles Emile Duran, 1838-1917). Sargent sailed to the United States in 1876 to establish his American citizenship, but remained active in Paris for the next several years, submitting well received pictures to the annual Paris Salon, summering in Naples and Capri in 1878, studying the paintings of Diego Velásquez at the Prado Museum in Madrid (Spain) in 1879 and those of Frans Hals in Holland in 1880, and made the acquaintance of Claude Monet in 1881. At the 1884 Salon he exhibited a provocative portrait of the decadent New Orleans beauty Virginie Gautreau (under the title Madame X, 1884). This created an absurd and embarrassing scandal — both critics and the model were offended — and as a result, partly at the urging of the American novelist Henry James, Sargent moved permanently to London the next year, and in 1886 moved permanently to the Chelsea (London) studio formerly owned by the American painter James McNeill Whistler. The scandal had damaged Sargent's reputation as a portrait painter, so he turned to landscapes painted in the plein air impressionist manner, and figure oils such as the poignantly saccharine Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-86), one of the most striking studies of twilight ever painted. During a year long trip to the USA (Boston and New York) in 1887-88, he completed nearly forty society portrait commissions, and his fortunes completely revived in 1892 with his splendid and touching portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, a painting that clinched his election to the Royal Academy the same year. In 1890 and 1916 he accepted several of important mural commissions on religious themes for public buildings in Boston and Cambridge (USA), which he worked on from 1891 until his death. During the next three decades Sargent was one of the first "global commuters," traveling frequently between London, Boston, New York and Paris, with annual vacations in Italy or Spain, and mural research trips to Egypt, Syria and Palestine. (As Robert Hughes said, "his homeland was his talent.") He became one of the most admired painters of the era, by far the most sought after society portrait painter, and one of the wealthiest artists of his time. He was elected to the USA National Academy of Design and to full membership in the English Royal Academy in 1897, received the French Légion d'Honneur in 1889, won many exhibition medals and prizes, and published a photogravure collection of 62 paintings in 1903. At this time criticism of his work as elitist, conservative and academic began to appear, emanating primarily from the minor English painters Roger Fry and Walter Sickert. From 1907 Sargent substantially limited his portrait commissions (offering quick charcoal sketches instead) in order to complete his mural projects and to pursue his favorite recreations — traveling with friends and watercolor painting. A large show of his late watercolors in New York City in 1909 led to substantial acquisitions of these works by the Brooklyn Museum (1909), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1912), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1911), and the Worcester Art Museum (1917). These watercolors, completed during extended summer vacations and mural working trips, are snapshots of immediate experience — the canals of Venice, Alpine pastures and cottages, hiking siestas and afternoon meals, villa parks and fountains, rock quarries, fishing streams, Florida alligators and Bedouin tribes. Many of the models who appear in these paintings were family members, fellow artists and lifelong companions. His cousin Mary Hale observed, "Other travelers wrote their diaries, he painted his."

In my world, Sargent is among the finest watercolor painters and one of the most underestimated painters of the 19th century. Technically there was nothing he could not do, that goes without saying. But judgments that he was superficial, conventional or facile are utterly misguided.

Sargent used his brilliant technique to explore a uniquely modern artistic theme: time and subjective perception. In his mature paintings, he continually demonstrates the constructive and sketchy nature of our visual experience by the device of creating cohesive, detailed and convincing visual images from distinct, individualized brushstrokes.

The problems of perception and visual illusions were foremost in the debates at the turn of the 20th century among psychologists in America and the Continent, and it is impossible to appreciate Sargent's ambition — and he was extraordinarily ambitious — without placing his technique in that context. Here, for example, are observations from William James's Principles of Psychology (1890):

We are constantly selecting certain of our sensations as realities and degrading others to the status of signs of these. When we get one of the signs we think of the reality signified; and the strange thing is that then the reality ... is so interesting that it acquires an hallucinatory strength, which may even eclipse that of the relatively uninteresting sign and entirely divert our attention from the latter. ... Thus the faintest sensations will give rise to the preception of definite things if only they resemble those which the things are wont to arouse. ... The sense of sight, as we have seen in studying Space, is pregnant with illusions. ... No sense gives such fluctuating impressions of the same object as sight does. With no sense are we so apt to treat the sensations immediately given as mere signs; with none is the invocation from memory of a thing, and the consequent perception of the latter, so immediate. ... It is this incessant reduction of our optical objects to more "real" forms which has led some authors into the mistake of thinking that the sensations which first apprehend them are originally and natively of no form at all. ["Sensation" and "The Perception of 'Things'", passim]

The implicit critique, in the last sentence, of the homogenous divisions deployed by Seurat or Signac clarifies Sargent's unique focus: identifying by the accumulation of single brushstrokes the minimal arrangement of signs necessary to produce a completely convincing reality.

Most stupefying is Sargent's ability to overcome the technical difficulties imposed by this challenge across hundreds of surviving works.

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The Sargent in Italy exhibition (which I saw in Denver in 2003) provided several excellent examples, among them The Moraine (right, top). All the published images are hideously skewed toward a false brownish light; I have tried to retrieve the correct balance of brilliant whites woven into shades and glowing tints of cerulean, ultramarine, umber, sienna and ochre. Seen from several feet away, the painting creates a lively, almost photographically literal image of a granite scree, with every rock particularized in astonishing detail and with a perfectly judged range of values — from the skylit mountain pass in the background to the glaringly sunlit rock textures and sharply contrasted rock shadows in the foreground. But when seen from a distance of a few inches, the rocks astonishingly dissolve into partially overlapping and seemingly random brushstrokes laid over a puckered ground (right, bottom).

This kind of loose, illusionistic brushwork has a long ancestry, as far back as Rubens or Titian. But Sargent stands apart from his predecessors in two crucial respects: his brushwork coheres perceptually into a strong (almost photographic) realism, and the brushwork is always locally analytical.

With Monet's late waterlily paintings, for example, there is little difference between a square inch of canvas and the entire pond — the lossy brushwork creates a lossy image. (Richard Taylor has demonstrated that this constant fractal complexity across different areas of a painting is a consistent feature of Jackson Pollock's paintings.) In contrast, Sargent creates a convincing image and wealth of detail from what seems on close inspection to be completely inadequate means: the two levels of view are fundamentally different. The connection between them is the perceptual act.

Sargent is unrivalled in his ability to build convincing object perceptions from separate brush signs, and to create apparent details through the force of broad effects. With many Impressionist painters, as with Rubens or Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock or Joan Mitchell, there is a recognizable sense of groping: by daub, dribble or smear, one similar mark on top of the next, the painter finally approximates the desired overall effect. Other painters (Van Gogh, Seurat or Signac) take the opposite extreme and carve out their paintings with thousands of distinct, mechanically similar glyphs, whittling away at the bare canvas. Sargent never does either: every mark contributes a specific energy and perceptual connection.

I imagine that The Moraine was constructed much as two master go players lay their stones, shaping the final pattern from an intently tactical choice of individual moves: the size of the brush, the charge and viscosity of the paint, the weight and speed of the stroke, and the unique shape of the touch. Light, form and surface texture are simultaneously captured in every stroke. Nowhere is there evidence that wrist or arm fell into a mechanical, random or "gestural" approximation, even briefly. All details are illusory, created by the relationships among much coarser, individualized signs. In my experience, no other painter has an equal skill — both in oils and watercolors — at conveying so much visual richness with such analytical means, creating light, color and form through the arrangement of visually sufficient yet superficial signs.

A great number of Sargent's watercolors were made in Venice, whose mixture of light, water and picturesque architecture held an endless fascination for him. In these he meditates on the fleeting, flowing, insubstantial nature of reality through his images of water, facades, and effects of changing light. In addition, Venice provided the image of a disappearing past to anchor Sargent's unique focus on the flow of time. The imminent destruction of Venice from subsiding land and encroaching sea had been predicted since the 1820's, and during the Victorian era Venice became a focus of preservationist efforts; but the Venetian aura of irreversible decay also symbolized for many Europeans the withering of traditional class and cultural distinctions that began with the revolutions of 1848. Against this backdrop of moldering stones and a vanishing past, Sargent looked for compositions that would convey a snapshot feel of immediacy and motion, as in the Santa Maria della Salute (1904, 46x58cm). Many of his watercolors were painted from a canal boat or a wharfside bench and dashed off with incredible speed and accuracy of brush. This painting shows, even in reduced size, Sargent's uncanny way of summarizing forms and movement in calligraphic brushstrokes, and his tremendous ability to organize every aspect of a painting at first view and on location — what Lloyd Goodrich called his "infallible eye and unerring hand." He worked easily and quickly, first using ruled pencil lines to block out the major angles and edges, then blocking in general shapes and soft tonal variations wet in wet, and finally inserting sharper details as the paper dried, sometimes using white gouache for precise highlights. This church facade was one of Sargent's favorite architectural subjects, and the familiarity he obtained by painting it many times lets him suggest the intricate ornamentation with a mystifying cloud of blobs and flecks. An apparently solid impression dissolves into incoherent squiggles on closer inspection — most recognizable in this painting as the marks that suggest coiled rope in the foreground prow, or the figures and tarp on the boat behind. The impression of accuracy and detail is created in large part by the carefully judged relationships across the whole image. The violet shape at the prow of the foreground boat helps to separate it from the browns of the barge behind it, and creates a satisfying resonance with the greens of the canal waters and the warm yellows of burlap and canvas. Accents of umber help to resolve these complex shapes into separate boats on the waves, and to distinguish them from the neutral whites and grays of the slumping facade in the background. The slight tilt of the facades suggests that they are moving too, but in the much slower tempo of sinking foundations.

The Moraine (c.1908)

by John Singer Sargent


detail of the painting

During his training under Carolus-Duran, Sargent was taught the beauty of a subdued tonal palette (in the style of the Spanish painter Velàzquez), the correct adjustment and placement of values, and the directive to paint exactly what he saw. Sargent turned these dictums into a watercolor technique that produced poetry from the most trivial or happenstance subjects — he despised picturesque "views" almost as much as tourist crowds. One of the most affecting aspects of Sargent's paintings is the way they often present an image glimpsed during physical movement — a hike, a walk in a garden, a trip in a canal boat. The act of perception is highlighted by the transient content and viewpoint of these images. Corfu: The Terrace (1909, 53x40cm) seems to be a sidelong glance during a late afternoon stroll: two weathered and almost toppled stone urns, a few trees, the slanting reddish light, and an obscured opening through the wall that suggests our feet are already turned in another direction, as if to pass this moment by. That opening hints at an alternative path that leads down through the trees toward a prospect of the sea, so a moment of choice seems captured as well. Formally the composition inverts the standard landscape design, placing the darkest values at the top of the image and the lightest values at the bottom. The modeling of the urns, the scarred texture of the white walls, the aerial perspective of the distant hills, the contrasted textures of olive leaf and pine needle, the backlit lightening of the leaves at upper right — all these observations are perfectly controlled to suggest that sad sunlit moment when the close of day reminds us of the inevitable passing of time and the limited choices we get to make in life. The color mixtures are especially complex across the middle section of the picture, helping to define the background vegetation and horizontal line of hills through the stark vertical pattern of the trees, and emphasizing the complex effects of light, which emanates from an unseen source and so resembles the inner glow of memory.

Sargent's vagabond childhood instilled in him a lifelong love of travel, and despite the large girth he acquired in later years he was always an energetic walker and mountain hiker. He was characteristically a painter of summer daylight and clear air: Turner's twilight, snow, fog and storms do not figure in his works. The many paintings he completed during summer excursions through the Italian Alps show his companions reading, sleeping, or — as in Simplon Pass: the Tease (1911, 40x52cm) — in the conversational play that swirls among companions resting after a strenuous climb. The Simplon route between Geneva and northern Italy had been a picturesque commonplace for watercolorists since the early 19th century, but Sargent ignores the the grand mountain scenery to focus on his companions in the hike. Technically, Sargent's paintings are always delightful and instructive to study for the seemingly endless variations in brushstrokes they contain (compare, for example, the squirmy brownish lines across the middle dress with the energetic violet slashes across the other, or the densely thatched texture of the righthand bush with the looser texture of the background). The mauve shadows and ochre highlights of the hiking dresses mix into a variety of lovely grays, bathed in pale viridian from the backlit umbrella, and contrasted against the rapid green outlines of shrub and background hillside, each handled with a different manner of brush and pigment. This painting also shows us Sargent's deep human sympathy, perhaps his greatest strength as a portrait painter. Cradled in the center are two familiar faces, captured with a delightful simplicity and accuracy of touch: his young and impish niece Rose Marie Ormond (who holds up an annoying insect) and the matronly Polly Bernard — one of the child models Sargent had painted in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose over twenty five years before.

Despite the apparently casual viewpoint of Sargent's watercolors, photographs and contemporary accounts show that he carefully selected the poses and settings for his paintings, and worked on them with intense concentration and rapid pace. The intimate and fleeting effect is the result of great craft, not inconvenient circumstances. Sargent's watercolors repay careful study for their remarkable brush technique, minimal palettes, beautiful color harmonies, perfectly judged tonal values, infallible sense of composition, and for his ability to capture the durable facts of the world in a way that highlights the poignant transience of perception and human existence.

(I've posted on a separate page some contemporary accounts of Sargent's painting methods and teaching methods.)

In the past few decades, Sargent's watercolors have risen substantially in critical appreciation: they are no longer seen as mere doodlings, conservative and escapist, that the artist was content to give away. For painters, the essential volume is American Drawings and Watercolors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2000) by Stephanie Herdrich and H. Barbara Weinberg, which reproduces every painting and drawing in the Met's superlative collection, with an brief essay on Sargent's materials and technique by Marjorie Shelley. Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes by Warren Adelson & Richard Ormond (Abbeville Press, 1999) puts the watercolors in the context of Sargent's other works after 1900, when he cut back his work on society portraits to focus on paintings outdoors; unfortunately there are too many poorly focused, badly cropped or badly imbalanced color reproductions. Trevor Fairbrother's John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist (Yale University Press, 2000) is a mixed bag: a welcome and thoughtful reappraisal of Sargent's achievement and methods, it attributes Sargent's "sensuality" to his rumored homosexuality rather than to his brilliant and amazingly self directed talent. Carl Little's The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent (University of California Press, 1998) in paperback offers a generous sampling of all his watercolor themes, in good reproductions, with informative captions and text. Finally, the multivolume and lavishly illustrated catalog raisonné of Sargent's works has finally begun to cover his landscape and figure watercolors: see Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray (editors), John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes 1974-1882. Complete Paintings Volume IV. (Yale University Press, 2006).