The greatest and most cosmopolitan portrait painter of the Gilded Age, John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was famously described as "an American born in Italy, educated in France, who looks like a German, speaks like an Englishman, and paints like a Spaniard."
In the early 1900s, bored with his immensely successful portrait career, Sargent took up watercolor painting in earnest, turning out fluid, remarkably fresh and varied studies in that demanding medium. The Brooklyn Museum acquired a substantial number of the watercolors in 1909 and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston followed in 1912. Now more than 80 of these exquisitely beautiful images have been reunited for the first time in a traveling exhibition and accompanying catalogue.
Unlike conventional watercolors of the era, which tended to be overly refined and somewhat effete, Sargent's were bold, loosely painted and vigorously colored. Still, as with all watercolors, they are "fugitive" -- meaning that their pigments would fade if long exposed to light. As a result, they are seldom exhibited and then only for brief periods.
"John Singer Sargent Watercolors" reflects the artist's travels throughout Europe and the Middle East, from the canals of Venice to the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy and the Bedouin camps of the Holy Land -- Jerusalem, Beirut and Syria. He also traveled into the Alps during summers and painted friends picnicing, conversing or napping in the shade of huge umbrellas. His quarry scenes from Carrara are virtually abstract impressions of light bouncing off slabs of stone or ragged cliffs. And in Italian villa gardens and on the Island of Corfu, he gave free rein to his bravura style in architectural studies of light on stone fountains, arcades and walls dancing with multicolored shadows.
Savvy travelers will set aside time to see the paintings at the Brooklyn Museum through July 28, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (October 13 - January 20, 2014) or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (March 2 - May 26, 2014). Or pick up a copy of the luscious exhibition catalogue, John Singer Sargent Watercolors by Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone, (copublished by the Brooklyn and Boston museums, $39.95).