Sargent: The Watercolours @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK show in nearly 100 years devoted to the watercolours of the Anglo-American artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent biography

Sargent was American, born to a successful Philadelphia eye surgeon, who quit his trade to live a peripatetic life travelling round the beauty spots of Europe, with wife and a growing brood of children. Sargent’s parents encouraged his artistic tendencies and supported his decision to train as an artist in Paris in the 1870s. Here he learned precise draughtsmanship and a sumptuous way with oils, though he was also attracted to the new fashion for painting in the open air which came to be called Impressionism.

In Paris Sargent painted a number of successful portraits before moving to London in the mid-1880s where he quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter to the upper classes. Sargent produced some 900 oil paintings, many of them masterpieces of style and grace, as demonstrated by the recent awe-inspiring exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

But throughout his life he continued to paint watercolours for his own pleasure and, once his London practice was secure, from the 1890s onwards, took a regular extended summer holiday, travelling all over the most picturesque parts of Europe and painting painting painting wherever he went.

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The exhibition

This beautiful exhibition brings together a selection of some 80 of the estimated 2,000 watercolours which Sargent produced. Away from the pressurised world of his London studio and expensive commissions, the watercolours depict a relaxed and sunny world of picturesque locations – Venice, the Alps – a world of colourful locals in Italy or Spain, and of leisure ladies lounging with parasols.

It is the world of wealthy, confident Yankee ex-pats depicted in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, a gracious world untroubled by rumours of war, where the moneyed could travel easily and stylishly from hotel to hotel in Venice, Rome, Bologna, Corfu, maybe down into Spain, and, after a good breakfast, set out one’s easel, pin up the cartridge paper, moisten the brushes, adjust one’s straw hat, fix the brollies in place, and then start sketching with light confident pencil strokes before moving on to start building up washes of colour.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Architecture

Many of the watercolours give the impression of being deliberately unfinished, accentuating their light and airy effect. In fact one of the four headings into which the exhibition is divided is ‘Fragments’, although it is intended to have a different meaning. The curators use it to draw attention to the way Sargent is deliberately experimental in the way he frames and focuses many of the watercolours, cropping the subject, viewing it from unusual angles. Sargent’s oil portraits had to be pretty conventional, showing the key parts of the body of the sitter in a well-defined and well-decorated space – take one of my favourites, the staggering Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer in Tate Britain.

By contrast, in many of the watercolours Sargent deliberately focuses on details, cropping and cutting off, zooming in on unexpected aspects. This is particularly true of the depiction of buildings which dominate the first few rooms. He is interested not in the whole thing but of significant details and aspects, which he renders luminous with his amazing technique.

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

The curators point out the influence of photography which by the turn of the century had pioneered all kinds of ways of cropping and focusing. I love draughtsmanship and all lines, firm clear lines, so something in me warmed to all of the architectural paintings. Venice is the prime location for these, many of them ‘taken’ from low on the waterline, providing a gondola’s-eye view of the famous crumbling palazzos and churches. a) It’s a question of angle but b) also of the play of light on water.

Light on water is a perpetual challenge to a painter and water is a secret thread which connects many of the works here of ostensibly different subjects – portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and so on. There are lots of boats in harbours. Or streams in the mountains. Or lakes. His depiction of Palma harbour is an amazing attempt to capture the really dazzling, blinding white light of the Mediterranean midsummer noon, shimmering on the blue water.

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Of the six rooms here one is devoted to the subject of ‘Cities’, but in fact of the 13 paintings in the room, 11 are of Venice. Venice Venice Venice. Light on water, on aging stone, the detail of columns and porticos, friezes and balustrades. There are several rather touristy paintings of gondoliers punting their boats along canals, the spume of the waves highlighted with white impasto.

But there are plenty more of buildings, stone catching the reflections of water, and a moment’s reflection suggests that Venice combined the two great subjects, very classical monumental architecture, and shimmering surfaces of water.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

One of my favourites was this dazzling depiction of a grand baroque statue in Bologna: it demonstrates several characteristics – it is cropped (you can’t see either the top of the statue which apparently is a huge statue of Neptune, or the sides of the bowl) – it shows fascination with light on different surfaces, specifically the aged stone walling, the bronze statues and a slender line of acquamarine water – it is somehow both monumental and light and airy – and the casual pink washes give the sense of the background architecture with a wonderful casualness. It is often the bravura confidence of the backgrounds as much as anything which fills you with a sense of respect and awe at his ability.

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

Boats

Not everything is genius, however. I found the exhibition a mixed bag, with several startlingly brilliant images in each room, but also a fair amount of average or so-so works. Maybe this is because the standard of all of them is so high that you just accept it and quickly take it for granted.

In the earlier rooms I surprised myself by not liking so much his depictions of boats. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think I want my lines to be firmer and straighter, to bring out the toughness of lines to be found in rigging, the geometric complexity and angularity. There were several showing ships in a dry dock and one of some mill machinery (The Mill, Arras), but, for me, they lacked the rigour of the modernism which was to take the world by storm a generation later, when art found a language for machinery in modernist painting and social realist photography. Sargent’s ships are too soft for me.

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Some of the scenes of classic tourist destinations had a touristy tweeness; they are the kind of painting you actually find on sale in the streets of Venice, being hawked by street vendors. Depicting sweet peaceful scenes but lacking any oomph.

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Landscapes

I thought the landscapes were his weakest works. Sargent developed a routine summer itinerary from the late 1890s through to the start of the Great War: each vacation began with a spell in the Alps, then on to Venice, Rome, Bologna, maybe to Corfu. He visited Spain several times and even went on a Middle Eastern tour, as research for a historical mural he was painting back in the States. Everywhere he went, painting painting painting.

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

If you Google ‘John Singer Sargent landscape‘ you can surf through hundreds of images, many of them stunning. But some of the ones on display here were, I thought, weak. The Glacier stream (above) highlights some of those weaknesses – the perspective seems out, none of the details, of rock or water, are very convincing, and the human figure is worse. It was just as well the show included some of the weaker works: it made you realise Sargent wasn’t a god, he had his off days like other people.

That said, one of the best works in the show was a quiet but absorbing study of stones by a stream. It may not look much reproduced on a screen, but the closer you looked the more uncannily brilliant it became, you could touch each individual rock, feel the soggy sand bordering the stream. The brown blotches of heather in the background seemed perfectly judged. If I had a million pounds, I’d buy this one.

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

People

The final room is devoted to watercolours with people in them and there is a wide variety of settings. There are Bedouins in Arabia, gondoliers in Venice, Spanish street singers (this latter I find rather disturbing).

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

There are ladies in billowing skirts lounging by streams, a kind of quintessence of ease and relaxation.

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There’s a number of so-so studies of male nudes, smudgy faces and black loins. Again, if you Google ‘John Singer Sargent nudes‘ you can see scores of marvelous charcoal and pencil studies of males nudes online. The male nude watercolours on display here aren’t so good.

What did stand out for me was a trio of genius watercolours. One was of his sister, Emily. She was a painter in her own right. There’s a small display case of photos of the man himself, with friends, and of Emily and she looks a very starchy character, dressed in dense Victorian black. She travelled everywhere with a ‘companion’, a Miss Eliza Wedgwood, and there is a stunningly good watercolour depicting Emily painting, paintbrush in mouth, while spinsterish Miss Wedgwood looks off to the side. The character in Eliza’s face is wonderful; and the calm companionableness of the pair is like a novel in paint.

There are several depictions of soldiers. Sargent spent the early years of the Great War back in the States, but was recruited to become an official British war artist at the request of the Prime Minister himself. In the landscape room there are so-so depictions of ammunition dumps which don’t really have much to them, certainly none of the sketches compares to his studied masterpiece, Gassed (1919), they’re not meant to. But there are a couple of studies of soldiers from a Highland regiment, wearing kilts, at rest.

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

But the one I would like to own is this fantastic study of two soldiers pinching apples in an orchard. The light on the main figure’s helmet, and on the back of his jacket and top of his kilt, is to die for.

Last of this trio was a ravishing study of a man lying naked on a bed.

This is a stunningly relaxed and liberated, redolent of holidays anywhere hot, the big wooden bedsteads, the sharp tan lines on the body, the rumpled white sheets, the cigarette casually held. And, after I’d looked at it for a while, I came to admire the nose – the use of pink and cream to model the sheeny shiny nose of someone who’s been out in the sun, it’s just one of thousands of stunning details throughout the exhibition which Sargent’s amazing eye and staggering technique capture and record forever.

Conclusion

80 out of 2,000, that’s 4% of his total output of watercolours. A surf of the internet indicates the riches among the other 96%, but these are here, now, and available to view in the flesh in Dulwich.

Close up, you can see the texture of the cartridge paper, see the skimming pencil lines he sketched out first, capturing the essence of shapes, buildings, people, rocks – and then marvel at the confidence with which he applied colour washes and highlights to create, at their best, almost magical effects, stunningly evocative and atmospheric works.

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy

‘Using the work of Monet as a starting point, this landmark exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s’ and features ‘masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.’

Gardens! Monet! As might be expected there was a massive queue to get into this huge Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition, and it was very busy inside, making it quite hard to see the paintings in some rooms.

The exhibition is in ten or so rooms, and its skeleton or backbone is a chronological survey of the flower and garden paintings of Claude Monet.

In the first room are early ‘realist’ works like Lady in the garden (below) from the 1870s, set among similar works by numerous contemporaries. Half-way through the show is a room explaining how in 1883 Monet started renting a large house at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris, and began laying out his famous garden, going on to buy some adjoining land to create the famous water lily pond, complete with Japanese bridge, which he was to paint for the rest of his life.

Then the exhibition climaxes in two rooms devoted solely to Monet – the first showing 15 or so late works, before the final space which is devoted to bringing together three huge paintings of the waterlilies. These enormous works were always intended to form one massive super-painting but were separated and sold off at his death, and are brought together here for the first time in nearly a century.

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The rise of gardening

At the Guildhall Art Gallery recently, I was interested to read how the nineteenth century saw the rise of the ‘home’. For many people in the 1800s the house they lived in was also the site of their work, where they performed all sorts of labouring, spinning, the manufacture of small artefacts etc. By 1900 the separation of home and workplace was complete for most people, who went to offices or factories to work, with ‘the home’ now a place which increasing numbers of people prided themselves on decorating and adorning according to the latest fashions, a place to express their personality or flaunt their status, a book market catered to by an ever-growing range of books and magazines dedicated to suggesting the best fabrics and wallpapers and furniture and ‘look’. (The Ideal Home Show was founded in 1908.)

Something similar happened with gardening. In 1800 ‘gardens’ were what aristocrats in grand houses had or where peasants in cottages grew vegetables. By 1900 ‘gardening’ had become a popular middle-class activity, complete with handbooks, guides and magazines to advise on which plants and flowers to grow where, how to lay out a garden, what to sow to achieve ‘year-round colour’, and an ever-growing range of exotic plants and hybrids imported from abroad to provide intense and novel colours. (The Chelsea Flower Show was established in 1912).

Auguste Renoir - Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Auguste Renoir – Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Impressionism, insofar as it was ever a coherent movement, was about using the convenience of a broader range of oil paints newly available in easily portable tubes, and the newly-built railways lines around Paris, to take a day trip out to the suburbs and paint scenes of ‘real life’ in their actual setting. Naturally, part of this interest in the real life of the 1860s and 70s was the growing fashion for gardens, and this exhibition shows that many painters not only painted gardens – many, many paintings of gardens – but were often themselves enthusiastic gardeners.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Average garden paintings

Thus, alongside the early Monets, the first rooms we walk through feature works by numerous other artists in the same plein air style –  Pierre Bonnard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are three big rooms showing scores of paintings of gardens, garden paths, flowery borders, ladies with bonnets in chairs, and profusions of flowers, all in a hazy summery impressionist style. To be honest, not many really stood out. Lots were as bland or sketchy as, for example:

I liked:

Bad garden paintings

Among the many very average paintings here – it’s a massive show – some stood out as being actively bad, amateurish and shapeless, lacking life, definition, colour. Some of the real stinkers included:

  • Garden of le Relais and Seated Woman Reading by Jean-Édouard Vuillard
  • Weeping Willow by Monet Even the sainted Claude painted some horrible paintings, their palettes garish and pukey. There’s a lot of Monets here and not all of them are good.

This Bonnard is one of the images the RA has selected for reviewers to use, but I find it bland and lifeless. Does it convey the fierce heat of the south of France or the play of sunlight on leaves in a breeze? No.

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Monet at Giverny

After wading through lots of so-so pictures, it’s a change of mood to enter the room devoted to Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. Several hundred books, thousands of articles, posters, mugs and posters and badges and tea towels have made these images of water lilies among the most famous in art. But to see them in the flesh is to be converted all over again to their strange magic.

By not depicting the edges of the pond, the surrounding trees, let alone the sky – by concentrating purely on the surface of the water, with its mysterious reflections punctuated by the clumps of free-floating lilies – Monet creates a hauntingly free space into which you feel yourself being ineluctably drawn. I was struck by how much purple and mauve and violet he used in his depictions of water which, in my experience, is rarely purple or mauve. By 1900 his pond paintings are more about composition and palette ie about the interaction between colours on the canvas, than the so-called ‘real world’. Images which are obviously about the ‘real world’, but just as clearly about pattern, shape, composition and colour. They are genuinely bewitching, and in a different league from everything else in the show.

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Monet garden dates

  • 1883 Monet rents the house at Giverny
  • 1890 Monet buys the house and starts designing the gardens
  • 1889 Monet admires the water-lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition
  • 1893 Monet buys a property next to the garden and diverts a stream to create a lily pond
  • He builds a bridge modelled on the Japanese prints he likes
  • 1899 Monet paints 12 paintings of the the bridge and water lilies beneath
  • 1909 Monet exhibits 48 water lily paintings

The greenhouse room

I was surprised to walk into a room dominated by glasshouse-, greenhouse- and hothouse-shaped display cases showing a selection of books, articles and magazines about gardening from across Europe in the late 19th century. This is a room for the true horticulturalists among the visitors. There were also photos of Monet in his garden, accounts of the instructions he gave the six (6!) gardeners he employed, notes on seeds to buy, species and varieties to select, planting dates and so on.

Interesting if you’re a real Monet-maniac, but for me the standout items in this room were the five or so Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

It was a shock to be transported for a moment to a completely different tradition. The clear, fine, black outlines and delicacy of colour and detail of these Japanese prints are as opposite as can be from the smudgy western impressionism and post-impressionism which this exhibition is foregrounding. They crystallised for me what I didn’t enjoy about many of the paintings earlier in the show – their vague mistiness, the depiction of flowers as great woolly expanses of undifferentiated colour – and helped explain the paintings I was drawn to – ones which showed some kind of clarity of line, like Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums, or:

I worked at Kew Gardens and occasionally write my own, very amateur flower blog (just a diary of wild flowers I try to identify when out and about). Years of looking at flowers and trying to distinguish, say, lesser burdock from greater burdock, or broad-leaved willowherb from short-fruited willowherb, have made me look very closely at the structure of plants, at the stems and leaf shapes and edges, at stamens and anthers; and have also given me a taste for the small, the shy and retiring native wild flowers of England (eg the tiny scarlet pimpernel).

Thus, as I wandered past scores and scores of soft-focus portrayals of great swathes of blossoms set vaguely amid stippled, sunny gardens, I found myself preferring the paintings where you could actually identify the species of flower being depicted, or alternatively where the blossoms were subtle and understated – and tending not to like the ones where the flora consisted of undifferentiated washes of colour or great sprawls of acid yellow and vivid red commercial hybrids, impossible to identify and difficult for a wildflower lover like me, to like.

Mention of Tissot made me think of other contemporary British artists and the show includes at least two works by John Singer Sergeant who, in between painting his lucrative society portraits, spent summers at the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting flowers and gardens. The two samples here are not his best – eg Garden Study of the Vicker’s Children (1884) – and they don’t, for some reason, include his super-famous garden masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886).

Modernist garden paintings

The exhibition puts the efforts of Monet and the other impressionists into the widest possible context, featuring generous selections of European contemporaries – those we know, like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch – and those we’d never heard of, like Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, Henri Le Sidanier, Henri Martin and the German impressionist, Max Liebermann.

  • Green Wall by Santiago Rusiñol – The four or five paintings by Rusiñol really stood out in this room, unusually ‘realist’ in detail but also for the orange dusk light which dominates them, very unlike the summery green of many of the other chocolate box images.
  • Glorieta de cipreses, Jardines de Aranjuez (1919) by Santiago Rusiñol
  • Steps, Gerberoy by Henri Le Sidanier

There were quite a few Libermanns and, although the wall labels point out how prolific he was, how famous in his day, and how devoted to the garden he created on the shore of Lake Wannsee in Berlin, I found them unfinished, undetailed, unsatisfying.

One room was devoted to the Fauves and other experimental, turn-of-the century art movements. I didn’t like the two Matisses on display: Rose-table (below) seemed to me just ugly, in composition and colour, and Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) just looked unfinished but not in a good way.

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

But like the other rooms, it’s a fascinating selection of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Also in the category of ‘little known garden paintings by super-famous twentieth century artists’ were:

I liked the three little Klee paintings (he may be my favourite 20th century artist), and the way he turns everything into his own quirky type of linear composition. But, contrary to everything I had just told myself about liking understated and clearly defined flowers, I also really liked Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (below). It was completely unlike almost everything else in the show, not trying to be gentle and sensitive, or an attempt at plein air painting, or particularly figurative, but a violent, vibrant exercise in primary colours and tones. I liked its virile confidence.

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The photo room

The biggest surprise of the show was entering a room which is full of garden tables and benches. It’s a rare opportunity in an exhibition of this size to be able to sit down and have a rest. There were four big wooden garden tables, each with a set of chairs, and bearing two or three copies of the exhibition catalogue to flip through.

The walls of this room were lined by extra-large (really large) black-and-white photos of many of the artists featured (Klee, Kandinsky, Bonnard etc), snapped in their respective gardens, the whole thing dominated by a big screen on the far wall showing three short clips from films of a) Monet at work, French fag hanging from his mouth, dressed in a white jacket, palette in hand and standing next to the famous lily pond b) Max Lieberman painting in his garden c) le Sidanier ditto.

Monet’s later years at Giverny

Immediately following the photo and film room you move into Monet’s final years.

He had been devastated by his wife’s death in 1911 and was also suffering from eye trouble, and so stopped painting for three years. Then, on the eve of the Great War, he took up his palette again and, when war came, bravely refused to leave even as the Germans advanced towards his house and garden and studio.

This penultimate room contains about a dozen paintings of the pond, lilies and trees from around the time of the War. What came over for me is how, by this stage, Monet had stopped really being an impressionist. Many of the paintings were painted from memory, inside the large studio he had built. Purple and violet tones predominate in the lily paintings, making the clumps of lilies float in a neutral non-space, an increasingly abstract arrangement of colours which have a genuinely hypnotic effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very poor works on offer, some crude heavy depictions of the Japanese bridge in a completely different palette from the gentle violets of the other paintings, hard to believe they’re by the same man.

But among half a dozen breath-taking works on show here, my favourite was the large weeping willow – probably because it is unfinished and I always love the idea of a work of art emerging from the raw canvas, of beauty struggling to free itself from chaos or banality – and because I like strong black marks and outlines, even if only sketchy, of the kind that can be seen here. The commentary points out that he did a series of weeping willow paintings date around 1918 which might express his feelings about the terrible catastrophe which had destroyed European civilisation. All the more poignant.

The agapanthus tryptich

The final room (in fact the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall) is devoted to the Agapanthus triptych, three enormous (7 feet by 14 feet) canvases Monet worked on from around 1915 to his death in 1926. The three separate pieces were sold off to different galleries and are rarely brought together, so this is a rare opportunity to see them reunited and to immerse yourself in Monet’s unique floating world.

Monet spoke and wrote a lot about his work, words which have been recombined into a thousand books, articles and t-shirt mottos: of all the words written about them, I liked the idea that these last works, enormous in scale and floating free of tradition, restraint, of all his previous work and from previous art, are Monet’s attempt to create harmony, balance, poise and beauty after the devastation of the Great War.

No matter how stupid and destructive humanity is, in the waterponds of the world the lilies will always blossom again.

Related links

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends @ National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the greatest portrait painter of his generation. This show brings together around 70 of his oil portraits, along with some late watercolours and a dozen or so striking charcoal drawings. Every room contains works of breath-taking brilliance.

Early days

This is Carolus-Duran, Sargent’s teacher in Paris. Sargent entered C-D’s atelier in 1874 and quickly emerged as the star pupil. This portrait is Sargent’s tribute and thanks to his teacher on ‘graduating’. C-D taught that every brushstroke must count. It is astonishingly vivid and alive, you can hear the rustle of his coat and expect him to start talking at any moment.

I noticed the ornate deployment of his hands in this early portrait and then was very aware of how the hands were painted in all the subsequent works.

Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

Artistic circles

Born in Florence of expatriate American parents, Sargent was at home in the most distinguished artistic circles of Europe. While he trained as a painter in Paris in the 1870s, he forged friendships with leading artists of the day, including Rodin and Monet, but he had a host of other contacts which he cultivated assiduously throughout his career, a cross-section of which are represented here:

Dr Prozzi

This is an early one of Dr Prozzi, a Parisian doctor, aesthete and rumoured lover of numerous women. The incredibly sumptuous red and scarlets are from Titian and other Old Masters, but the casualness of the clothes (dressing gown and slippers) exude the confident informality of the bohemian circles Sargent was at home in.

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881 © The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881
© The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

Sargent and modern music

Sargent was not only a devotée of Wagner’s music (the last word in daring avant-gardeism in the 1870s and 1880s) but it is typical of him that paints the woman Wagner had an affair with as the composer was completing Parzifal, Judith Gautier, and typical of his circle that she herself was the daughter of the famous French poet, Théophile Gautier.

He admired the music of Gabriel Fauré but was also an active supporter, organising chamber concerts of his work and spreading the word among his networks of the rich and influential, as well as painting two portraits of the composer.

Stories

Almost every commission here has a fascinating story, shedding light on a complex web of contacts, friendships, artistic relations and influences at the highest level. Lily Millet, wife of the American artist Frank Millet, was at the centre of the community of artists and writers at Broadway in the English Cotswolds, about which we hear a lot in the commentary.

Mrs Frank Millet by John Singer Sargent, probably 1885–6 © Private collection

Mrs Frank Millet by John Singer Sargent, probably 1885–6
© Private collection

This portrait epitomises several Sargent traits:

  • the face is vividly captured and does the hardest thing in art, capturing the precise physiognomy of a human being
  • the clothes, the fabrics, the silks and muslins are deliciously and richly suggested
  • it is unfinished – the body of the dress dissolves into raw brushtrokes and the background is suggested, unfinished, undetailed, so that the body appears from a hazy background and the face emerges in dramatic clarity from the vague dress, like the sudden re-emergence of the vivid melody after the development section of a symphonic movement

Sargent and Van Dyck

From the start he painted eye-popping portraits with a sureness of technique and suavity of subject matter which immediately got him comparisons with Van Dyck, one of the great portraitists of all time. This is not quite right, as Van Dyck’s paintings have a technical completeness and authority which matches the hauteur of his aristocratic and royal sitters, whereas Sargent was very influenced by the artistic currents of his day so that many of his works have much looser brushwork, are sometimes incomplete, giving an often bohemian sense of dash and brio.

Though he painted portraits of astonishing brilliance throughout his career, in this show possibly the first room is the best, with the stunning early portraits of:

Below is Portraits de MEP et de Mlle LP (1881). The most immediate impression is of the staring seriousness of the little girl – then I noticed the splayedness of the hands, as in many other Sargent portraits – and the detailing of the pale brown rug is stunning – but no reproduction can convey the amazing sumptuousness of the young girl’s white silk dress which shimmers out of the frame at you, as if you could reach out and touch it.

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881 © Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881
© Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

Five periods

These early works established his reputation at the French Salon, at the British Royal Academy, from which – despite a few knocks and rejections – he was never really removed. The show is in eight rooms divided into periods:

  • Paris 1874-1885
  • Broadway 1885-1889, not in New York, the village in the Cotswolds
  • Boston & New York 1888-1912
  • London 1889-1913
  • Europe 1899-1914

The influence of Impressionism

Throughout his life Sargent was friendly with the Impressionists, though both they and he were clear he wasn’t one of them. He was very aware of their technical innovations, namely painting en plein air, and many of the works here represent his repeated attempts to do the Impressionist thing with, I think, mixed results.

Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, c.1904–5 ©Private collection

Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, c.1904–5
©Private collection

They are brilliant in their way, but pale next to the rich fullness of his masterpieces:

Ellen Terry

And the super-famous full-length portrait of the late Victorian actress Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth. Again, no reproduction can convey the sense of scale and sumptuousness of the actual painting itself. At its greatest there is something magical about the shimmer of surface and depth of illusion which oil painting can create.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889 © Tate, London

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889
© Tate, London

Sargent looked disconcertingly like King George V, with a healthy ‘full set’ of beard and moustache. He did a number of self-portraits but they aren’t revealing. He was a watcher of others, not a revealer of himself.

Later oils and watercolours

In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent officially closed his studio and was able to retire from the hard work of commissioned portrait-painting which he found quite a strain. Throughout his life he had painted informal oils for himself, often of friends – as many of the works in the show attest – and in the last two decades of his life he was able to travel more, painting more relaxed scenes in picturesque locations – in both oil and watercolour – and especially of Venice, the Alps or at villas around Italy, often depicting his circle of artist friends.

A good example is The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy from 1907 ,which the NPG has used as the poster for the show. It epitomises the rougher, more ‘impressionist’, brush style he used for these personal works. The active stance of the woman – the artist Jane de Glehn – compared with the idle stance of her husband, Wilfrid, is indicative of the ‘liberated’ bohemian air of Sargent’s artistic circle.

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy by John Singer Sargent, 1907. Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57 © Art Institute of Chicago

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy by John Singer
Sargent, 1907. Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57 © Art
Institute of Chicago

Absent masterpieces

And there are quite a few of his greatest hits which aren’t here, making the show not quite definitive, but with Sargent having produced so much, and it being scattered very widely among private collections, how could it be?

But still – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many Sargents together in one place. Go and marvel.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: