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John Singer Sargent: The Watercolours, at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor.

John Singer Sargent: The Watercolours, at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By James Brewer

A marvellous watercolourist in between commissions for genteel society portraits, John Singer Sargent was when young a marine painter as much as anything. Throughout his life marine elements continued to wash into his output, and he brought a fresh, sparkling angle even to the simplest of subjects.

This is cogently evident at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has opened the first major UK exhibition for nearly a century of watercolours by the Anglo-American artist, who lived from 1856 to 1925. Sargent: The Watercolours brings together 80 works mainly from his greatest period of watercolour production, which is between 1900 and 1918.

Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond

It is usually overlooked that Sargent had a maritime family background.  Whether this had much influence on his oeuvre is unclear, but it would be unsurprising if this were so.

On his father’s side, he was descended from merchants and shipowners of Gloucester, Massachusetts, a town which makes the dual claim to be “home to America’s original seaport and the oldest working art colony in North America.” After the shipping venture sank into financial woe, the painter’s grandfather moved his family to Philadelphia.  Sargent’s father, a notable physician and surgeon, gave up his work to lead with his wife a peripatetic existence in Europe, and their illustrious son was born in Italy.

The underneath of hull of a boat. 1922.

The son too had wanderlust, painting his more than 2,000 watercolours in many locations, from the English countryside to Venice to the Tyrol, Spain, Corfu, Morocco, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida. The fascination with water forms, with coastlines and with the canals of Venice was such that a 2010 exhibition (by coincidence, again a selection of 80 works) at the Royal Academy was called Sargent and the Sea. While this theme is visible at Dulwich, the subject matter and style at the south London gallery, like the man, ranges far and wide.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice.

It is said that his father, Fitzwilliam Sargent, was keen for him to pursue a naval career, and the young man did love ships and the sea, but this passion was expressed through brush and pencil. Studying in Paris, he travelled to Normandy and Brittany, and later Capri and Mediterranean ports to picture the working shore rather than the fashionable beach resorts. This he did in assured style, taking as one of his role models JMW Turner perhaps as much for his revolutionary tone palette as his addiction to the drama of ships at sea.


The Lady with the Umbrella.

In this painter’s paradise assemblage at Dulwich, we see a Sargent rejoicing in his freedom from the bounds and demands of the studio, but all the same working with restless intensity throughout the day, almost as if to deadline. Amateur watercolourists of the present day – and there are thousands of them in London alone – will be thrilled by his confident technique in this unforgiving medium, while the many charming results will entrance non-practitioners.

Although he considered himself an American, he seemed to be most at home in Europe enjoying the sights of Venice, strolling the backstreets of Santiago de Compostela, sketching by mountain streams, or teasing pictorial studies from workaday nautical trappings.


Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana.

Sargent’s birthplace was Florence, but his favourite city – of anywhere – was clearly Venice, where he produced hundreds of watercolours, often from a viewpoint as if from riding a gondola. In Venice, his watercolours dance with light, say the distinguished curators Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. The duo has assiduously sought to trace Sargent’s footsteps through Venice, to identify the locations for his prodigious output.

Renaissance and Baroque palaces of the city evoked a more muted response from him than the less glamorous side canals, with their narrow passageways, strange geometries and the mysterious play of light and shade.

Thus, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, which he painted at an unknown date between 1904 and 1909, was executed from the Giudecca, at a time when that island was becoming an industrial zone. In the picture, the domes of the church occupy a secondary role – just a few segments of the building are visible – to the business of boats in the foreground, where a linear pattern of bowsprits and masts dominates.

Palma, Majorca. 1908.

There is no doubt that he understood the configuration of marine paraphernalia. When he composes a scene of Venetian fishing boats, his account of the complicated masts and rigging makes it “almost abstract,” says Mr Ormond, a former director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

This is underlined when, in 1922, probably in the US state of Maine, he paints an unprepossessing subject, the underneath of the hull of a boat. He delights in delineating the planking, and there is just the suggestion of another small ship being built to the starboard side. “The pattern and the line is more important than the subject,” says Ms Kilmurray.

With Palma, 1908 the pink flying buttresses of the Gothic Cathedral are a feature but as an incidental to the tangle of watercraft in the foreground, and the Mediterranean waters seen in bright sunlight are rendered in a pastel palette of pink, blue and white. The same vision of nautical grandeur informs the glorious Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor, now housed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, of slightly earlier date.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass.

Ms Kilmurray said: “He loved the complicated pattern of boats: curve and counter-curve.”

Sargent had from an early age been elevating pattern and form above grandeur. This is illustrated in Constantinople, from 1891, in which he depicts a strikingly horizontal view across the Bosphorus of the historic centre of Istanbul. The silhouette is dominated by the distinctive dome of Süleymaniye Mosque in blue, blue-grey and mauve, with the outlines of shipping in dense, velvety browns.

In 1905-06 he went out into what the Bible would term the wilderness, to paint the monastery of Mar Saba, the first adhering to the Greek Orthodox church. It is 15 km east of Bethlehem and reached down a steep road. Overlooking the ravine of the Kidron Valley, the structure seems in the painting as if it is emerging from the rock. Sargent had to have armed guards to get there, fearing a hostile reception from the Bedouin.

Highlanders resting at the front.

Founded by St Sabas (Mar Saba in Arabic) of Cappadocia in the 5th century BC, the monastery was home to 300 monks at one point. The complex was largely rebuilt following an earthquake in 1834, and still functions as a monastery, although the number of residents has fallen to 20.

The Mar Saba painting is loaned by the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, from Arundells, the house of the former prime minister in Salisbury. Sir Edward wanted the house, garden and art collection to be available for the public to appreciate after his death.

Such modest masterpieces contrast with what Sargent turned out as a sought-after portraitist who was described by Rodin as “the Van Dyck of our times.” Mr Ormond said: “In Sargent’s watercolours we see his zest for life and his pleasure in the act of painting. The fluency and sensuality of his paint surfaces, and his wonderful command of light, never cease to astonish us. With this exhibition, we hope to demonstrate Sargent’s mastery of the medium and the scale of his achievement.

He admires “his ability to see the essence of whatever he is painting, to get to the core of it. It is about surface and it is about light.” It seems that the watercolours were accomplished rapidly. Mr Ormond said: “A lot could be done in a single session.  He worked at speed, but his mind was always at work.”

By 1900, aged 44 and at the height of his career, he had grown restless, seeking respite from the confines of his studio and the pressures – constantly having to deal with tricky sitters and all the machinery of grand portraiture — of commissions. He could afford to do so, and it was such a relief for him to get away during the summer months, to travel, and do his own thing.

Emily Sargent.

Working en plein air, he could explore subjects of his own choosing, seeking remote spots where he could work undisturbed. Carrying a box of watercolours, he could paint rapidly and without much preparation. What sprang from these excursions were much more than travel souvenirs; they were an integral part of his artistic production.

In some of these adventures, his models were members of his family, whom he sometimes asked to dress in oriental costume. Between 1900 and 1913, he spent summers in the Alps with them. Many of the paintings were done in Simplon in 1911, and can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston.

His niece Rose-Marie Ormond was often a subject, and that is the case with the signature work at Dulwich, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, on display in the UK for the first time, by courtesy of the Museum of Montserrat, Barcelona.

This beautiful portrait has become a touching memorial to the selfless Rose-Marie, who enchanted everyone with her lovely personality, but was struck by tragedy.  She was widowed when her husband Robert, with whom she had been researching at the Vatican before World War I, was killed in action in 1914. She devoted the next years to working as a volunteer nurse at a hospital for blinded soldiers in Reuilly, Paris, and was one of 93 people killed by a German bombing raid while attending a concert at the Church of St Gervais in the French capital on Good Friday 1918.

Exhibition poster.

In The Lady with the Umbrella, Rose-Marie is seen close-up in repose as she glories, perhaps slightly uncomfortable, in her fashionable summer dress as she attempts to shield herself from the sun. Sargent’s technical brilliance in highlighting the white dress, and the pose he gives his sitter, makes this so much more than a “pretty” study.

The show, boasting items from 30 lenders, is tightly structured without being regimented. It opens with examples of what it calls Sargent’s fragments and of close-ups of man-made structures. These are workmanlike pieces that, while more than fragmentary, yield only hints of the lure of the landscape sections and ultimately personality and genre studies that hold sway in succeeding rooms.

Like an overzealous magazine picture editor, he deploys cropping to concentrate on the steps and plinths of quite large entities.  For instance, with Rome: An Architectural Study, of 1906-07, Sargent reduces the field of vision to a corner of a building, focusing on the effect of daylight on the stone by contrasting warm and cool tones. He directs his gaze around the same time on the base only of Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana.

A few years later, Sargent was to paint more landscapes than any other subject, revelling in a freedom to dictate the play of light on stones, greenery and water. Sargent was fixated on form and surface pattern, particularly in his mountain landscapes such as Bed of a Torrent. Through obsessive, repetitive studies of streams he captures the flow of brooks over mossy rocks, turning this into a device that rejects distance and scale. These measures are so full of vitality, observes Mr Ormond.

In the final room, together with the parasol picture is a group of figurative paintings, including depictions of his travel companions, fellow artists, working people and infantrymen, as in Group of Spanish Convalescent Soldiers and Highlanders resting at the Front.

The depictions acknowledge that his mother and elder sister Emily were skilled watercolourists – some of Emily’s works have recently been discovered by the family, and she is surely worthy of a dedicated show at some stage – and so too was his younger sister Violet Sargent Ormond who “had a deft and delicate hand” according to the catalogue. Violet was the subject of many of his paintings.

The curators Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray are known as the leading experts in the UK on Sargent, and the former has a special claim to inside expertise as he is Sargent’s grand-nephew, and grandson of Violet. He was director of the National Maritime Museum from 1986 until 2000 and formerly head of the picture department from 1983-85. At the National Portrait Gallery, he was curator for the 19th century collection, and the deputy director from 1975 until 1983.

Mr Ormond, who was written more than 30 books about Sargent and other leading figures, is chairman of the trustees of the Watts Gallery at Compton, near Guildford, which is dedicated to the work of the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) who has been described as England’s Michelangelo; and was a trustee of the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, which is designated by Congress as America’s National Maritime Museum.

While at Greenwich, Mr Ormond was responsible for the exhibitions Armada (1988), Henry VIII (1991), Pirates (1994), Titanic (1995) and Story of Time (2000). He completed the refurbishment of Queens House and Royal Observatory and secured £23m lottery funding for the Neptune Court project which involved roofing the main courtyard of the National Maritime Museum and a complete renovation of the maritime galleries.

Ms Kilmurray has worked with Mr Ormond on publications and co-curated exhibitions on Sargent’s work in London, Washington, Boston, Ferrara and Los Angeles. Both have laboured long on Sargent’s catalogue raisonné, published by Yale University Press.


Picture captions in detail:

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor c 1904-07, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Presented by Miss K de Hochpied Larpent, 1943.

The Lady with the Umbrella. 1911. watercolour and pencil on paper. Museu de Montserrat. Donated by J Sala Ardiz. Image © Dani Rovira.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, c. 1904-09, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil. © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira.

Palma, Majorca. Palma, Majorca, 1908, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, with touches of body colour. © Fitzwilliam Museum,

Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana, c. 1906-07, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 35.2 x 50.3 cm, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Presented by Mrs Ormond, the artist’s sister, 1937. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass, c 1910-11. Unknown photographer. Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Highlanders resting at the front. 1918, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Sargent: The Watercolours is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until October 8 2017. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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