NEW YORK - Among my very favorite artistic achievements are John Singer Sargent’s watercolors. To my mind, there aren’t too many people who mastered this medium with more success. The fluidity of his line, the delicacy of the colors and above all, his ability to use the paper underneath to suggest shape and space—these are some of the elements that make them endlessly fascinating to me.
John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: Reading, circa 1911
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
And now these brilliant works by Sargent (1856–1925)—sometimes overshadowed by his more famous, and equally formidable, paintings—are at the Brooklyn Museum until July 28. The show has 93 beauties, from Brooklyn’s collection as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most of Brooklyn’s have not been on view for decades—they are light-sensitive, of course—so this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around every day.
Once Sargent closed his portrait studio and allowed himself to do what he wanted, he spent even more time on watercolors, traveling the world and making a couple thousand of them in his lifetime. Italy was always a prime source for inspiration, particularly for watercolors, with Venice and the Italian Alps forming some of his signature scenes (it’s hard to think of a better medium for capturing watery Venice, or a shimmering mountain brook).
John Singer Sargent, Boboli, circa 1906
Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription
It’s difficult to pick a favorite in this show; we’d be here all day. But certainly Bedouins (1912) is one of the most arresting works in town right now, with its deep, rich blues and the sly eyes of its subjects, wrapped in headscarves. They hold you stock still in their gaze.
But a roaming desert people have some natural drama built-in; the real test of a great artist is turning a blah-sounding subject and making it engaging. That is certainly the case of Corfu: A Rainy Day (1909), which is nothing more than a couple of vacationers sprawled out on a sofa because their site-seeing day has been cancelled due to bad weather. The scene is soft and drowsy, a mood perfectly captured, and seeing it puts a spring in my step.