Monday, January 12, 2015

John Singer Sargent, born today in 1856.

There is no way I could pass up celebrating today's birthday boy. Although John Singer Sargent (Jan 12, 1956 - April 14, 1925)  was known during his life time for his portraits of the Edwardian elite, it's his watercolors that continue to dazzle.

During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings.

His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent announced his retirement from the kind of society portraiture that, with the help of some judicious investments, had made him so prosperous. By then, he had already begun painting watercolors outside of the studio, en plein air.

At first, Carbone (his first biographer) explained, he painted the watercolors for himself. “In his studio, apparently, he had stacks and stacks of them, just in piles. People describe parts of his house with stairways lined with framed watercolors. He would give them as presents—there’s this joke that people would get engaged just so they could get a Sargent watercolor.” (“These sketches keep up my morale,” he told a friend, “and I never sell them.”)

Eventually, though, he grew serious about exhibiting and selling them, and came to see the watercolors as a body of work in their own right. He realized that their beauty was most visible when they were seen together, and he sold them in two large groups, one to the Brooklyn Museum, in 1909, and another to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, in 1912. By that time, it was clear that the watercolors were serious art. “One of the things we wanted to do with the show,” Carbone said, “is correct the sense of these works as being his ‘vacation’ occupation. They were really an extension of his most serious aesthetic concerns.”

Sargent was fascinated by light and by the ways he could reproduce the magic of its effects. A friend who travelled to Morocco with Sargent wrote: “He goes into raptures over the effect of translucency which is given to the white walls of the houses and mosques by certain lights, and also the unusual effect caused by the fact that the outlines of the buildings against the sky are lighter than the sky itself.”

Link to Boston exhibit:

There are several Sargent watercolors and drawings at the Houghton Hall exhibit, currently at the Legion. The show closes on January 18.

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