Sargent: The Watercolours at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

John Singer Sargent, A Glacier Stream in the Alps, c. 1909-11, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 33.3 x 49.5 cm, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums). Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

John Singer Sargent is best known as a painter of portraits in oil. Since childhood, however, he was also a keen watercolorist, and a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery seeks to show his ‘technical brilliance’ in the medium. It was in 1900 that the artist seriously returned to painting in watercolour, and the exhibition focuses on works he completed between 1900 and 1918, when Sargent was at the peak of his watercolour production. While these works have often been ‘dismissed as simple travel souvenirs’, the exhibition argues for their importance as an essential part of Sargent’s oeuvre.

Turning into the exhibition, I am immediately struck by the first picture on display. Alhambra, Patio de los Leones, painted in 1879, depicts a low-level and fragmentary view of the entrance to a chamber in Granada. Faded tiles line the floor, contrasting to the brighter wall tiles in the right-hand corner of the painting, and three steps are shown leading up into darkness. Two pillars stand in the foreground, their bone-white colour striking against the darkened entrance and heavy-set wooden door. While the picture might seem unassuming, there is a lot going on. The piece plays with the idea of space, and empty space, drawing the eye with its dark corners and doorways. Watercolour also allows Sargent to hint at what is there, rather than portraying it unmistakably in layers of oil, so that the tiles in the painting seem almost like an idea, or dream, of tiles. Light and dark are also in play, with the white spaces of the painting brightened by their positioning next to the dark details of the door and shadowed stairs. Patterning and plainness are contrasted in a similar manner, and the more I look at the painting, the more I like it, with its jewel-like flashes of colour, its gem-like tiles.

John Singer Sargent, Rome: An Architectural Study,
c. 1906-7, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 34.9 x 50.2 cm, Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana offers a further example of Sargent’s unusual perspective. Four thick-set pillars stand in front of dark green foliage, their purple sheen reminiscent of water. Rather than showing the entire temple, however, Sargent crops the scene so that we see less than half of the structure, resulting in a zoomed-in, photographic feel. This use of the close-up is what makes Sargent’s work radical, the exhibition argues, and the first room is dedicated to Sargent’s vision of ‘fragments’. San Stae, Venice is one such fragment, depicting a corner of the Baroque church of San Stae in Venice next to a smaller red building. As in many of Sargent’s paintings, the vantage point is low, emphasising the grandeur of the Venetian architecture. Other paintings, such as Venice, Steps of a Palace and Palazzo Grimani, situate the viewer at water level, so that the buildings seem to rise up, impressively large, before the viewer’s eyes. Both of these paintings also share a dividing middle line, so that the work appears to be split in two horizontally: Venice, Steps of a Palace is divided by its steps, which separate the upper and lower halves of the picture, while the same effect is achieved in Palazzo Grimani by Sargent’s depiction of a patterned frieze. Rome: An Architectural Study is similarly divided. Described in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue as an ‘architectural slice’, the work is an exercise in precision. The formal line of the plinth cuts the work cleanly in two, and the division is made clearer by the tonal contrasts of the piece. Whispers of mauve paint lend the top half of the painting a heavier feel, while the bottom is left brighter, yellow and grey shadowing indicating light.

Other paintings show the turmoil of human construction. Venetian Fishing Boats depicts a disorientating network of sails, masts, rigging, and nets, criss-crossing the sky like an elaborate pattern. The muddied brown and rust-red tones, which streak the surface almost like blood, contrast singingly to the blue on the hull of the boat. Hull of a Boat, a later painting from around 1922, offers an even more extreme close-up, and we view a section of the boat’s underbelly through the disorder of wooden poles and scaffolding. Here, as in other paintings, Sargent is drawn to the modulation of brown tones. Although I prefer his brighter colours, the predominance of brown works well in this case, causing the boat and scattered wooden debris to merge. The boat’s shape is also pleasing, reminding me of a pod, or walnut, with its dark grooves and hazel tones.

Boats feature heavily in Sargent’s work, and although the exhibition’s second section is devoted to cities, the emphasis is usually on buildings seen from waterways. Venice, then, was an important centre for Sargent’s imagination. Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a stunning example of Sargent’s gift for depicting water and light. The burnt orange tones of the building, one of the grandest of the Venetian charitable guilds, contrast beautifully to the shimmering green water, which is in turn reflected in the white steps leading up to the building. Vue de Venise (sur le canal), painted around the same time, positions the viewer similarly at water level. Here, two gondoliers propel their boats through vibrant green water, spume tumbling around their oars. Speed is suggested by their tilted stance and outstretched arms, while the dark brown boats are semi-transparent to expose the water, giving a sense of harmony between the gondoliers and waterway. The notes next to the painting refer to it as a ‘spirited study’, and the piece exudes energy. Sargent returns to the image of gondalas in The Piazette, Venice, where boats bob in water like birds with curved beaks. Once again, we are at eye level with the water, and its sensuous blue pulls us into the image; the close-up perspective is also typical of much of the artist’s work at this time. A Small Canal, Venice also offers a surprising viewpoint. Sargent painted the scene from a gondola moored under a bridge, and the image sees us peering out from under the structure at a medley of boats and the sheen of water reflecting the buildings above. The buildings also have a watery quality to them, perhaps owing to the heat of the day, and the scene is bathed in a luminous, honeyed light.

John Singer Sargent, Bed of a Torrent, c. 1904, watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 36 x 51 cm, Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Ever interested in fragments and close-ups, corners and passageways, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sargent was not a fan of traditional panoramic landscapes. He once asserted that ‘enormous views and huge skies do not tempt me’, choosing instead to focus on the details and patterning of lakes, seascapes, and rocky shores. In Bed of a Torrent, Sargent focuses on an ‘unremarkable patch of riverbed’, zooming in on a selection of pale grey, white, and orange stones, angling our attention at what might otherwise be missed. A Glacier Stream in the Alps is the standout painting in this section of the exhibition. The bold piece is dominated by fractured boulders, rocks, and deep blue mountains, and features the Italian artist Ambrogio Raffele painting in the foreground. His grey suit makes him almost indistinguishable from his surroundings, intimating the close relationship between artist and nature. Other paintings also show Sargent’s friends and family members sketching, or sleeping, outside. Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent Sketching depicts the artist’s sister keenly sketching, a spare paint brush between her teeth, and she reappears in Miss Sargent Sketching. Not all the paintings are successful, and several are rather sickly idealisations of women reclining in dappled sunlight, bodies ‘sensuously twisted’ towards each other, as in A Siesta. According to the exhibition, the latter painting ‘conjures up an image of innocence, beauty and suspended time, as if the women inhabit a dream world that will never change’. Perhaps the same could be said of Highlanders Resting at the Front, a bland image of soldiers in uniform resting, oddly unmarked by any signs of battle or distress. These images aside, Sargent: The Watercolours does a fascinating job of exposing Sargent’s gifts with light, water, and fragments, providing new insight into how the artist saw the world.

by Suzannah V. Evans

Dulwich Picture Gallery: 21 June – 8 October 2017