Frances has many years' experience writing about exhibitions in art galleries and museums.
First Major UK Exhibition of Sargent's Watercolours since 1918
Beginning in June 2017, Dulwich Picture Gallery presented a major exhibition of watercolours by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
Sargent: The Watercolours focused on the years between 1900 and 1918, a time regarded by many as the artist's finest period of watercolour painting.
In the first major showing of this artist's work since 1918, more than eighty stunning works, many lent by public and private institutions, were on display in the UK for the first time.
The display was jointly curated by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. Ormond, who is Sargent's grandnephew, was previously director of the National Maritime Museum, London. Art historian, curator, and author, Elaine Kilmurray, has collaborated with Ormond on various publications and has also co-curated major exhibitions of Sargent's work in Europe and the USA. They are regarded as the UK's leading experts on the work of John Singer Sargent.
Richard Ormond said: “In Sargent’s watercolours we see his zest for life and his pleasure in the act of painting. The fluency and sensuality of his paint surfaces, and his wonderful command of light, never cease to astonish us. With this exhibition, we hope to demonstrate Sargent’s mastery of the medium and the scale of his achievement”.
The exhibition examined the artist's extraordinary attention to detail, his mastery of the complexities of light, his innovative use of perspective, and the very striking poses of his sitters.
"Sargent: The Watercolours": Exhibition Layout
Arranged thematically, the display was set out in four sections: Fragments, Cities, Landscapes, and Figures.
The show started by introducing viewers to some of Sargent's Fragments. It was unusual for this artist to paint complete buildings. He preferred to show fragments, sliced angles, and close-ups of specific elements of a structure often with obscured or unusual views. In doing this he invites the viewer to imagine the complete building. For example, the domes of The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c.1904-9) are partially hidden by the rigging of ships in the canal. The rigging carries our eye through to the church and creates an unusual frame for the domes.
The City Through Sargent's Eyes
Sargent travelled to Europe, the USA and North Africa. His experiences are reflected in his huge output of approximately 900 oil paintings and over 200 watercolours including sketches, portraits, studies after old masters, landscapes and architectural studies.
His scenes of everyday life in Venice, usually shown from the gondola perspective, show both the grandeur and the less glamorous side of the city. In A Small Canal we see a narrow shadowy waterway with its strangely-shaped structures and unusual lighting effects.
He gives us views of many other famous cities such as Constantinople, painted in about 1891, in which he hints at the grandeur of historic Istanbul. The artist presents a wide-angle view of the city dominated by the minarets of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Like The Church of Santa Maria della Salute the dome of the mosque is framed by tall uprights, possibly the masts of boats in the foreground.
Between 1900 and 1918 Sargent produced more landscapes than any other subject. In September 1910, whilst in Tuscany with a group of friends, he painted Siena. We see the medieval city of Siena in the far distance rendered mainly in white and pink. The scene is framed by trees and lush greenery giving the impression of a fertile and peaceful countryside.
During his time in Tuscany Sargent painted a number of white Chianina oxen, vital to Tuscan rural life. He was fascinated by them, creating numerous drawings, oil paintings and watercolours. A White Ox (c.1910) depicts a magnificent beast. The artist shows both the incredible strength and the gentle temperament of the animal.
Sargent: The Watercolours reaches its climax with a selection of figurative paintings such as The Lady with the Umbrella (shown above) and Group of Spanish Convalescent Soldiers (c. 1903). The sitters in Sargent's figure paintings were often members of his family and friends or fellow travellers and artists on his many trips abroad.
The Lady with the Umbrella (c.1911) depicts the artist's niece Rose-Marie Ormond. He produced an oil painting of Rose-Marie (not shown in this exhibition) and she was the model for a number of his figure studies. Rose-Marie's is a sad story. In 1913 she married French art historian Robert André-Michel but he was killed in action in 1914. Rose-Marie, who nursed the blind during the war, died in Paris in 1918 when a German shell hit the church of Saint Gervais where she was attending a concert.
About the Artist
Born in Boston and educated in Europe, Sargent studied painting at Florence Academy and in Paris under Charles Auguste Emile Duran, better known as Carolus-Duran (1838–1917). After settling in London (Chelsea) in 1884, he soon became popular in Edwardian society.
Writing in Sargent: The Watercolours, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray tell us Sargent's mastery of the medium of watercolour was equal to the skill of J. M. W. Turner, Paul Cézanne and Winslow Homer. They say: “the rhythm of his brushwork, the surface, the palette and patina of his paint, make these works strikingly individual and lyrical.”
But he did have his critics. Writing in The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists (Thames and Hudson World of Art, 2011, p. 323), Sir Herbert Read said: “His technical dexterity and ability to flatter his sitters were often offset by a bravura brushwork, sometimes degenerating into the slipshod”. This earned him the nickname of 'the Slashing School'. Anthony Bertram, the author of A Century of British Painting, 1851-1951, said “All that was wrong with Sargent was that he gave his sitters no souls and his pictures no pictorial meaning. His pictures have a similar relation to art that skillful juggling has to great acting.”
Sargent: The Watercolours offered a different perspective on the artist, exploring his remarkable individuality and technical brilliance.
Despite these critics, Sargent is regarded by many as the finest portraitist of his generation.
"Sargent: The Watercolours": Events and Publication
The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated colour exhibition catalogue by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. The publication presented fascinating new research into Sargent’s watercolour output with key essays from the curators.
Dulwich Picture Gallery offered a series of related events including courses, creative workshops and performances.
© 2017 Frances Spiegel