John Singer Sargent swaggers into the MFA


Contributing Writer

Last fall, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) unveiled its grand exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, marking the first time the MFA’s and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sargent watercolor collections were combined in one show.

Sargent, who was born in Florence in 1856, is best known for his portraits, most notably his onetime-scandalous “Madame X” painting. But Sargent was also a talented, inventive watercolorist, and most of his watercolors are of outdoor scenes, like Venetian bridges, picturesque fountains and gardens, and lush fruit ripening on their trees. The paintings play like a poignant slideshow of his time travelling throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, reflected in his subjects and the scenery he captures.

I went to see the exhibit soon after its opening and learned more about John Singer Sargent than I had expected to take away. Upon receiving my ticket, I was also offered a touch-screen handheld guide to the exhibit, which relayed brief descriptions of the paintings and one-line insights from Sargent experts, curators and conservators. It may be ill-borne, but I find it embarrassingly “touristy” to peruse galleries with headphones and the not-so-subtle lanyard dangling what looks like a restaurant pager from around my neck. Instead, I like to think I’m being more intellectual and insightful by refusing this complimentary humiliation. As a result, I had no idea how useful it can be to actually learn about painters’ biographies and hear professional analyses of works. In fact, the museum provides quite a number of tools for the visitor to learn more about the artist’s life and art via mobile guides, a multimedia presentation and a video demonstrating Sargent’s watercolor technique.

John Singer Sargent was born in Italy while his American family was living in Europe. Although they meant their European trip to be a vacation, Sargent’s mother couldn’t bear to leave Europe, so the family became expatriates. The painter’s European upbringing profoundly affected his work, which reflects both his wanderlust and his willingness to experiment.

At the start of the 20th century, Sargent’s technique was quite radical: he ignored contemporary styles that aimed for clearer, more drawn-out landscapes painted with thin washes. Sargent, on the other hand, utilized opacity in his washes, providing contrast with looser, undefined shapes. He also painted scenes from startlingly new perspectives that received plenty of criticism but also awe. A London reviewer even labeled his paintings as “swagger watercolors.”

I think his works certainly had plenty of swagger. Many portray beautiful scenes of Italian architecture, lounging ladies in the grass, traveling Roma and otherworldly villas. The wall colors the paintings were displayed against were carefully chosen so as not to clash with the paintings, even matching a particular color in the featured painting to its wall color.

My favorite painting was “Bedouins,” which depicts two striking figures in indigo headscarves framing their faces, their gazes looking out towards the viewer. Although the painting looks almost unfinished, with the figures’ more freely defined bodies, this only makes their faces stand out more. You can almost feel the early morning sunlight shining down on them from the way Sargent applied wax resist on the headscarves to emphasize the paper texture and give the Bedouins a faint glow.

Sadly, the Sargent exhibit closed on Jan. 20, but judging from the exhibit’s popularity in both New York and Boston, I have no doubt a similar gallery will return in the future. As Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Senior American Paintings Curator and head collaborator on the Sargent exhibition, said, “These watercolors are full of joy and freedom… show[ing] an artist rediscovering his creativity and his passion for making works of art.” After visiting the exhibit, I understand her perfectly. Facing a painting like “Bedouins,” “Gourds,” or “Villa di Marlia, Lucca,” how can you ignore the radiating bliss and inspiring motifs of his luxuriously carefree lifestyle? I, for one, am truly jealous of his ability to appreciate nature while creating art that challenged the norm. I can only hope that I absorbed some of his skill and zen by seeing his masterpieces on a quiet afternoon at the MFA.

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