It is not too late to see John Singer Sargent Watercolors, the first expansive exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors in twenty years, organized by The Brooklyn Museum, together with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 28. The exhibit unites for the first time the 93 watercolors of Sargent acquired by both museums. The exhibition travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 13 to January 20, 2014 and then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Brooklyn’s Sargent watercolors were purchased en masse from the artist’s 1909 debut exhibition in New York. The watercolors purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1912, were painted by Sargent with his Boston audience in mind. They feature themes of travels to the Italian Alps, the villa gardens near Lucca, and the marble quarries of Carrara.

I have painted watercolors for over 40 years (one of my paintings, “Family Portrait” is in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum) and I had been eagerly awaiting this exhibit. As a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board to The National Endowment for the Arts which supported the exhibit, I followed the project as it was in the works. I was also invited by The Corcoran Gallery of Art to lecture about Sargent during their recent ‘Sargent and the Sea’ exhibit.

As a watercolor painter I can imagine Sargent holding the brush to paint these paintings. His use of brushstroke, loose and free is extraordinary. Another artist might not be able to pull it off but Sargent makes it work. His oils, too, have this quality – a dash here, a couple of brushstrokes there, something only a master can execute. It is like jazz – you have to have the basics before you can improvise.

Brooklyn Museum Curator Terry Carbone and Museum of Fine Arts Curator Erica Hirshler (co-curators of the exhibit) mentioned that Sargent travelled with an entourage of sisters and friends. He had a support network as well as ready models. (He posed his sisters in “Simplon Pass: At the Top.”)

It appears that he used the same sized block of watercolor paper as all of the watercolors are of similar dimension. They also all seem to be done, for the most part, on site. Some are dashed off very quickly (almost sloppy). They are a great connection to what the artist saw and his energy without being reworked in the studio.

I have spent many years painting outside and there are so many variables which make it difficult. The strong light on the white paper skews the color, what appears strong in the light becomes faded back in the studio. Paints dry quickly on a hot day and not so quickly on a damp day. Bugs, rain other things can interfere. When viewing these works it is important to take that into consideration – and be amazed at what he painted.

So many of the paintings are stunning (others not so – but worth the viewing). His Venice paintings display his deft handling of the medium and intricate painting of the architecture. He suggests with just a few strokes. One of my favorites is Venice: La Salute. I can imagine him sitting there looking up and painting.

I enjoyed the display of Sargent’s pigments, papers, and drawing techniques. It is a fabulous exhibit celebrating American watercolor painting.


“Family Portrait”, Barbara Ernst Prey, Watercolor
Collection: The Brooklyn Museum

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