From 1902 to 1911 John Singer Sargent painted a significant collection of watercolor paintings traveling to varied destinations with friends and family painting plein air. He was getting tired of the rigors of his large commissioned portrait work and he saw these travels as a chance to get away and paint purely for himself and for the enjoyment of painting. He did paint oils on these journeys, however, his medium of choice was watercolor. He never intended to sell or exhibit these works. However, Edward Darley Boit, kept convincing him otherwise, he finally relented under the condition that they not be sold piece meal and he would prefer that the whole collection be purchased by an Eastern Museum or collector. Boit and Sargent had a long friendship and it is Sargent’s portrait of his daughters, The Daughters of Edward Darly Boit, at the MFA Boston, that was one of his major triumphs. Boit, an accomplished watercolorist as well, had the idea for a combined showing of both of their works, and in 1909 the show opened at the Knoedler & Company Gallery in New York.
The Brooklyn Museum wasted no time to purchase the entire collection from the exhibit. The Boston Museum of Fine Art was a day late and a dollar short when they realized all the paintings had been purchased by Brooklyn. They put dibs on all of the paintings he would create three years after for the second exhibition site unseen. Therefore, these two institutions own the largest collection of his watercolor works and they organized an exhibition that started at the Brooklyn Museum last summer and is currently in Boston until January 20, 2014.
Living and traveling in Europe for a number of years, I have had the fortunate opportunity to see some amazing painting exhibitions. This one ranks up there as one of the best. The show was extremely well curated with works grouped by the different regions where he traveled and painted, Venice, the Middle East, the Swiss Alps, Italy, Portugal and Greece, with a combination of landscapes and intimate portraits of friends, family and people of these regions. Landscapes tended to be more intimate and focused on less traditional view points and more on details instead of broad sweeping vistas.
He had complete command of this medium but one gets the sense that he his painting in watercolor like one would in oils with broad sweeping brush stokes, in a loose quick style, still preserving the whites of the paper for highlights, or using wax as one would masking fluid to preserve areas of lighter color before laying down darker washes. He also utilized quite al lot of gauche or body color mixing it with the transparent watercolor, and even laying it on in a think impasto style for highlights and texture. I also love the fact that most all of the works have visible pencil lines that you could study and see his drawing underneath and sometimes on top of the paint. His draftsmanship was more evident in the architectural works of Venice.
I saw the exhibit twice on two consecutive days. The first day taking it all in, studying the paintings up close to analyze his various techniques. The second day I studied them more at a distance and was amazed at the glow, luminosity, how truly Impressionistic they were with his loose washes and painterly style.
Robert Genn, of the Painters Keys, once wrote a letter about the Stendahl Syndrome. Link to his article here. It is the condition of being extremely overwhelmed by the beauty of art or nature. I can honestly say I felt it at this exhibition. I had a hard time walking out the exit, and feel honored and grateful to have experienced this master’s work in watercolor.
P.S. On a sad note... Robert Genn who is such an inspiration to many artists with his Twice Weekly Letters, and founder of the Painter’s Keys web site. Sent a letter out last week titled “The Bomb.” He revealed he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Even revealing this news, he is uplifting and inspirational. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.