American born John Singer Sargent rose to acclaim by painting formal society portraits in oil. His abilities to accurately capture the personalities and nuance of his subjects led him to do commissioned work around the world. However, what many don’t realize is that he broke almost entirely away from oil and portraiture later in his career to dive headlong into the watercolor medium he had long enjoyed.
Recently, I was on a research trip in Houston, spending time on Galveston Bay with the US Coast Guard and Weeks Marine. While there, I had the pleasure of seeing the landmark exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s extraordinary watercolors at the Museum of Fine Art Houston. The exhibit is unique because it unites two significant Sargent watercolor collections— the Brooklyn Museum collection purchased in 1909 and Museum of Fine Art Boston collection purchased in 1912.
Entitled John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors, the exhibit offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see more than 100 of Sargent’s romantic watercolors featuring landscape, labor and leisure. The paintings include scenes of Mediterranean sailing vessels, villa gardens, marble quarries, fountains, gondoliers at work, one of Venice’s greatest churches, as well as explorations of sunlight and shadow.
His work in watercolor was nothing short of brilliant, artistically and technically. He almost always painted en plein air or “in open air” with the skill and confidence to paint quickly. He was a master of composition and the effects of light, and his techniques added to the vivid dream-like quality of his work. He painted wet washes into one another, used white space on the paper to great effect, implemented a wax resist to create various textures and effects, scratched out with a brush and knife, and finished with highlights of white gouache or Chinese white watercolor. He was truly revolutionary.
Following appearances at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Art Boston, this exhibit makes its final stop in Houston and it is an absolute must-see. The show runs through May 26 and I give it my highest recommendation. To quote the New York Times, “prepare for bedazzlement.”