John Singer Sargent Watercolours, Brooklyn Museum, New York – review

The society portraitist’s landscape studies display a keen eye for nuances of light and for arrestingly odd compositions

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gourds’ (1908)

Art exhibitions so often come laden with curatorial agendas – deconstructions, resurrections, reappraisals, repositionings – that a show celebrating pure virtuosity is a rare and precious thing. The Brooklyn Museum’s spectacular Sargent show bypasses his high-gloss portraits and confines itself to watercolours. Here you won’t find the gilded socialites dissolving into gauzy gowns, or the buttery brushstrokes he laid on to canvas as if preparing a slice of toast for his breakfast. Instead, curators Teresa Carbone and Erica Hirshler give us Sargent’s private experiments, conducted in the open air. There, freed from the constraints of clients and studio, he chased the vagaries of light, using a fencer’s fluid gestures.

The watercolours are masterpieces of observation. He scrutinised the ways light struck rocks, filtered through laundry on a line, glanced off white sails, and turned blue in shadowed corners. He watched the glare bounce across a Venetian canal or whiten marble so intensely it disappeared. Sargent built up colour in translucent layers. To emulate light beams on a surface, he flicked an almost dry brush at the paper. He reserved the white space of the paper for highlights, which he also produced with dribbles of zinc. Depending on the effect he wanted, he made the brush skip, sweep, flit or blur.

The show brings together two troves, each assembled more than a century ago. In 1909, the Brooklyn Museum paid $20,000 for 83 works that were being shown, to delirious acclaim, at New York’s Knoedler Gallery. Three years later, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts snagged its own catch of almost 50 works, also at Knoedler. These, too, sent critics into spasms of praise. “The Knoedler Galleries are ablaze with light and colour and tingling with the effervescence of Sargent’s dry wit,” trilled The New York Times, calling the pictures “a fine champagne for a connoisseur’s dinner”. The two institutions have finally joined forces to mount this exhibition, giving viewers in both cities a chance to savour the scope of what Sargent accomplished in his spare time.

Mostly retired from his lucrative career as portraitist-in-waiting to the transatlantic aristocracy, Sargent was reluctant to part with the pieces he had made for his own pleasure. “I have an entirely different feeling for sketches and studies than I have for portraits which are my ‘gagne-pain’ [bread and butter] + which I am delighted to get rid of,” he wrote to a friend. He resolved to sell, then changed his mind, and eventually agreed on condition that large chunks of his output remain together.

We can be grateful for that caveat, since it has produced such a complete and satisfying show. Each picture lingers on a particular time of day. The sun catches a set of flowerpots at noon and again at the ebbing of the day as shadows stretch across sandy pathways. Warm light lingers late on a balustrade or bleaches a pair of urns. He sets down this beauty in a range of expressive techniques: hard-edged precision for architecture; brushy impetuousness for certain types of vegetation; overlapping washes of luminous pigment for flashing sails.

Sargent has long been criticised, even dismissed, for the lavish lifestyle that he documented. He lived as a perpetual tourist, drifting from Alpine valleys to cypress-shaded Mediterranean estates. This was the world of wealthy Americans abroad, the pampered habitat that Henry James described in painterly prose. Sargent’s 1906 view of the Boboli Gardens fuses nicely with James’s description, written 15 years earlier, of another Florentine bower. “The sun had got low,” James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “the golden light took a deeper tone, and on the mountains and the plain that stretched beneath them, the masses of purple shadow seemed to glow as richly as the places that were still exposed.” Sargent was a master of vibrant shadows. They flare with mystic light or spread opaquely at the centre of a scene edged in bright clamour.

Such delicate pleasures lay outside the vocabulary of most early modernists. Sargent (like James) was sidelined by the rising avant-garde, whose ranks derided refinement as so much genteel sentimentalism. In a 1926 review of a Sargent memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, Roger Fry sneeringly noted: “Certainly, on these holidays what he sees is exactly what the average upper-class tourist sees. Everything is as striking as it is obvious.”

The put-down is plainly false. Only in his pictures of veiled and turbaned bedouins in the Holy Land does he go wrong, slipping into trite exotica and biblical cliché. Otherwise, Sargent seeks out odd angles and bracing asymmetries, often observing his lolling subjects from above or below rather than finding their most flattering pose. He rarely chooses an obvious panorama. In a scene of a well-dressed party resting at the crest of the Simplon Pass, the white-gowned women stretched out on the high mountain meadow echo the grouping of peaks beyond, as if to emphasise that those who venture out into nature quickly become absorbed by it. Anyone who looks at Sargent and sees only surface might linger on the long views of the Boboli Gardens’ gravel allées and stranded statues at sundown. Only his contemporary Eugène Atget, wandering around Versailles with a big box camera, could match those melancholy meditations on the eclipse of Europe’s elite.

Sometimes Sargent blocks out the horizon entirely, and at that point ventures into virtual abstraction. A close-up of gourds hanging from a branch is positively Pollock-ian, with its tangles of squiggly lines. In vistas of the marble quarries at Carrara, the sky is exiled to a corner above the shattered cliffs, and human figures fade into quasi-cubist essays in white and ochre. The watercolours reveal an artist who is adventurous and self-assured, giddy to have escaped from the gulag of tasteful parlours into the consoling sun.

Until July 28,

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