How did John Singer Sargent’s watercolors differ from his oil paintings? Why did he paint them? What is so special about the two large groups of watercolor paintings on display now in New York City? 

The answer is in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Museum, in New York City, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in Boston, worked together to create a landmark exhibition of 93 Sargent watercolors, on view now through July 28 in Brooklyn, and from October 13 through January 20, 2014, in Boston.

“The Cashmere Shawl,” ca. 1911, translucent watercolor and touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, 19 15/16 x 14 in. Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts

Plein air painters will appreciate the hearty dedication on display in this group, from paintings executed in arid Morocco and Syria, to high mountain scenes depicting rain (and promising uncomfortable painting conditions), to complex arrangements of figures in the Alps. One imagines Sargent was likely interrupted by plenty of interested people when painting in Venice, too. His productivity was impressive. Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone, in the show’s catalog John Singer Sargent Watercolors, say Sargent painted about 230 watercolors over three summers from 1902 to 1904 — just less than a picture a day. Because plein air watercolor paintings were Sargent’s preferred antidote to formal portrait commissions, critics past and present have condescendingly referred to the watercolors painted abroad as “souvenirs.” But perhaps they miss the point — every trip into nature is a vacation of sorts for painters, an excursion for joy, and thus every plein air painting is a happy souvenir to some extent.

“Mountain Fire,” 1906-1907, opaque and translucent watercolor, 14 1/16 x 20 in. Collection Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

“Bedouins,” 1905-1906, opaque and translucent watercolor, 18 x 12 in. Collection Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

Sargent didn’t paint the watercolors for money. He considered them “a pleasure to do [and] a pleasure to keep,” and for years he refused to sell them. The artist was only persuaded to put them up for sale through the entreaties of the Boit family, Sargent’s patrons and friends from Boston. Even then, Sargent only sold them because Bob and Ned (Edward Darley) Boit arranged for all the pieces Sargent shipped from England to New York for a 1909 show at Knoedler Gallery be purchased in a lot by the Brooklyn Museum, in Brooklyn, New York. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in Boston, barely missed out on this sale, and made sure that they purchased the entire lot of Sargent watercolors featured in the next show, in 1912.

Full coverage of John Singer Sargent Watercolors will appear in the April-May issue of PleinAir magazine.


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