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MFA exhibit highlights unique perspectives, effects of watercolors

Published: Monday, December 9, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 9, 2013 09:12

At the height of his fame at the end of the 19th century, John Singer Sargent became increasingly weary of painting commissioned portraits. In the decade that followed, the Paris-trained American decided to explore different themes and subjects by traveling widely in southern and central Europe as well as the formerly Ottoman Levant. These travels brought out his brilliant composition and brushwork that captured not only vivid hues, but also a liberating sense of lightness and leisure that is rarely seen in his commissioned oil paintings.

“John Singer Sargent Watercolors” at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) displays Sargent’s watercolor paintings painted between 1902 and 1911. The temporary exhibition combines, for the first time, two separate collections from the Brooklyn Museum and the MFA to allow a closer look at the artist’s creativity during this period. Organized by theme, the exhibition offers an opportunity to engage with captured moments in Italy, the Swiss Alps and the Arab world, as well as idle poses and work scenes.

The first section of the exhibition takes museum-goers to Venice, and the deep blue color of the gallery’s walls helps highlight the emphasis on water in Sargent’s work. The painter worked frequently in gondolas that travelled the hidden alleys of Venice, and, from his low vantage point, he gives us a sense of the dynamic relationship between flowing water, moving vessels and Venetian architecture. The translucent colors layer to become shades that form the impression of sea and sky. In “Gondolier’s Siesta” (1905), two oarsmen are seen in repose with their ships docked in a quiet canal. Sargent’s depiction of their informal, relaxed poses captures a quiet moment in Venice, which he described as “a sort of fountain of youth.”

The following section of the exhibit, “Arab Encounter,” showcases portraits of nomads. In these pieces, Sargent pushes the limit of watercolor technique by combining saturated and undiluted colors. In “Bedouins” (1905-06), the undiluted blue paint used for the desert nomads’ keffiyehs, a type of headscarf, has a palpable texture that is contrasted with the fluid, transparent brushwork in the background.

Sargent’s artistic vision leads to more unexpected perspectives and compositions throughout the rest of the exhibition. In the section “Villa Gardens,” his paintings — rather than presenting a full image of the grandeur of Italian gardens — focus on cropped scenes and details. Another series of works on quarries demonstrates Sargent’s genius in depicting massive hard stones using fluid watercolors. Sargent’s artistic freedom leads to a great sense of “dolce far niente,” or pleasant idleness, in the section “Portraits Lying Down.” This part of the exhibition shows works of young people, manservants, country girls and others outdoors in reclining poses, drenched in sunlight. These more casual watercolor paintings allow Sargent a vacation from entertaining patrons who commissioned stiff formal portraits.

Two pieces of multimedia works highlight the thematic and technical essence of the exhibit. A video at the entrance, accompanied by French composer Maurice Ravel’s solo piano piece “Jeux d’eau” or “Water Games,” introduces Sargent through a collage of his work. The music’s theme is connected to both the medium of the artwork and setting of the Venice section. Towards the end of the exhibition is another video — “Exploring Melon Boats” — that shows artist Monika deVries Gohlke’s attempt to recreate Sargent’s “Melon Boats,” likely satisfying any viewers with lingering questions about the watercolor technique.

Yet the artist’s ability to capture fleeting moments remains the most exceptional element in the exhibit. As the wall text for “Sunlight on Stone” reads, “In his best watercolors, Sargent painted what was not there — not the material of structures and sculpture, but the ephemeral dance of shadows and sunlight.”

“John Singer Sargent Watercolors” is on display in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (LG31) at the MFA and will run until Jan. 20, 2014.

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