Gesturing with Light

Sargent’s Watercolors

by Gail Leggio

Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-4, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

At the turn of the twentieth century, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), the premier portrait painter of his day, shifted his attention, almost full-time, to plein-air watercolor painting. While he had used watercolor throughout his career for studies, he now made it his principal medium of expression. Ninety-three of the resulting works—technically inventive, formally daring and irresistibly seductive—are on view at the Brooklyn Museum in “John Singer Sargent Watercolors,” an important exhibition co-organized with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The two museums played an active role in this phase of Sargent’s career. He insisted on showing the watercolors in large groups and initially refused to sell them at all, both because they meant a great deal to him personally and because he grasped their lasting significance. They “only amount to anything,” he said, “when taken as a lot together….United they stand and divided they fall.”1 Sargent liked the idea of an American museum setting and agreed when the Brooklyn Museum offered to purchase eighty-three works from a 1909 exhibition at Knoedler Gallery in New York City. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, purchased forty-five watercolors from Knoedler before the 1912 exhibition even opened. Bringing together the two collections, co-curators Teresa A. Carbone, of Brooklyn, and Erica E. Hirshler, of Boston, and their teams have produced a major scholarly reassessment of Sargent’s remarkable watercolors.

The experimental verve and pure sensuous pleasure of Sargent’s watercolors are immediately evident in the gallery devoted to Venice. La Serenissima had been a cornerstone of the travel industry at least as far back as Canaletto (1697–1768), whose splendid vedute—sweeping panoramas encompassing the city’s architectural gems under luminous blue skies—were prized souvenirs of Grand Tour aristocrats. In the nineteenth century, the city attracted swarms of less-exalted tourists, their expectations shaped by the writings of Lord Byron and John Ruskin and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Amateur and professional artists were drawn to Venice, and some fell, inevitably, into well-established compositional and thematic clichés. Sargent looks at the city from a fresh perspective. His personal iconography is notable for what he leaves out, beginning with the burden of history.

Ruskin’s immensely influential The Stones of Venice combined a passionate analysis of art and architecture with a moralizing agenda that traced the city’s fall from the glory of Gothic “to the pestilent art of the Renaissance.”2 Ruskin was often torn between aesthetic delight and cultural disapproval. He vividly describes traveling through the canals. When his gondola’s “prow turned aside under the mighty cornices that half met over the canal…and…at last darted forth” toward “the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation, it was no marvel that the mind should be so deeply entranced by the visionary charm…as to forget the darker truths of its history and its being.” The city’s modern beauty was “a mere efflorescence of decay.”3

Experiencing a similar Venetian moment, Sargent simply delights in the visual effects, the clarity of his eye and the virtuosity of his hand. The Bridge of Sighs (c. 1903–04) depicts one of Venice’s most famous and historically resonant sites, but Sargent wipes away architectural detail in the glare of sunlight, bathing the equally simplified buildings on the right in blue shadow. The low-angle point of view suggests that the artist is in a gondola, and its prow intrudes at the bottom of the composition, like a tourist’s thumb in a snapshot. The prow is, for Sargent, a deliberate compositional device, slightly off balance and suggesting the motion of the gondola. As the artist’s prow enters the frame, another gondola crosses his path, and the handling of this vignette is masterly. With just a few daubs of paint, Sargent captures the indolence of two ladies under their parasols and the exertion of the gondoliers steering their craft.

Sargent employed a variety of techniques: a single sheet might include translucent washes, touches of gouache and pencil drawing. In Santa Maria della Salute (1904), precise yet delicate pencil lines articulate the architecture of the dazzling white Baroque church. The artist deftly uses shadowy wash to pick out the façade sculptures. The foreground is more fluid, a loose tangle of boats and small, shadowy figures. Traditional vedute emphasize the silhouettes of famous buildings against sky and water. In Venice: La Salute (1909), Sargent approaches the church at an angle, and its marble mass fills the entire sheet, from steep, sparkling white steps to architectural and sculptural details shaped by blue and brown wash.

As a watercolorist, Sargent is constantly playing with the balance between passages of assured realism and almost abstract areas. For Venice: La Dogana (1911), the artist looks up sharply to the top of the customs house, economically sketching the elaborate weathervane—a dancing Fortune poised on a golden orb supported by atlas figures. Scudding bright-white clouds, in gestural gouache, increase the sense of windblown airiness. The solidity of the white tower is established by the corner angle of vision, with one side softly shadowed and the other caught in sunlit glare. Co-curator Carbone notes that Sargent’s contemporary critics frequently used the word brilliant to describe his watercolors, in recognition not only of his bravura paint-handling but also of his “intuitively masterful transcription of the visual effect of intense sunlight.”4

Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge, 1909, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection

Under the Rialto Bridge (1909), in contrast, is dominated by shadow. In this daring composition, a wedge of dark wash takes up much of the sheet. It is nearly formless yet cunningly frames the gondola that is emerging into the sunlight, manned by a figure whose muscular grace is neatly conveyed by a few strokes of white and black. Buildings are suggested by deceptively rudimentary-looking patches of wash, while loose strokes of blue and brown depict the canal water. The paint is wettest in the shadow under the bridge and thins out to streaks on bare paper in the sunlight. Sargent included Impressionist dots and dashes in his repertoire and spent time with his friend Claude Monet in Giverny. But while Monet’s Venice dissolves into a series of prismatic screens, Sargent’s retains a marvelous sense of illusionistic space. He makes us see the city anew by handling paint in a way that creates surface interest and, perhaps more important, by cropping and framing views in unexpected ways.

Sargent’s twentieth-century watercolors could be seen as the culmination of a peripatetic career. Born in Florence to American parents, he had his earliest triumphs in Paris, then—after the scandal of his portrait Madame X (1884)—moved to England and even greater success. Many of his clients were American, among them Edward Darley Boit, who arranged for Sargent’s watercolors (along with some of his own) to be shown in London and New York. Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) captures the cosmopolitan flair of the expatriate milieu. Sargent’s watercolors are a record of his travels to Venice, the villas outside Rome, the Alps, Corfu, the Middle East and—less predictably—the marble quarries of Carrara. For nearly a quarter of a century, Annette Blaugrund remarks, he traveled with his watercolor kit: “one could infer that he was often on holiday, but this, of course, was not the case, for…he was a prodigious worker.”5 The sheer volume of work—150 in Venice alone—is matched by his extraordinary visual sophistication. Tourist watercolors, both amateur and professional, were commonplace. The level of accomplishment was often very high and not just for major figures such as Turner. Edward Lear’s Nile scenes, to give just one example, have a diaphanous loveliness. Sargent was doing something new with the medium. When he showed a group of five watercolors at London’s Royal Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1904, a critic described his arrival as like “an eagle in a dovecote.”6

That Sargent was not an ordinary tourist painter is startlingly evident in his Bedouin series, painted during his time in what was then the Ottoman Levant. The ostensible purpose was research for his Triumph of Religion mural cycle for the Boston Public Library, a project he worked on from 1890 to 1923. His friend James Tissot had made similar trips for his 350 watercolors depicting the life of Christ, which Sargent urged the Brooklyn Museum to acquire in 1900. Sargent, however, became fascinated with Arab culture and produced images removed from both the Biblical narrative and orientalist fashion. The most striking of Sargent’s images is Bedouins (1905–06), a portrait of two figures, swathed in robes but vigorously present in personality, holding the viewer with an intense gaze. The artist works wonders with a limited palette: brown, white for the sunlight that sharply outlines the folds of their robes and a bold blue—as glowingly ultramarine as an Yves Klein sponge. The color is not ethnographically descriptive but expressive, as free and dynamic as Sargent’s gestural paint-handling. His friend Gertrude Bell used it as the color frontispiece for her scholarly but poetic memoir Syria: The Desert and the Sown (1907).7

The Alps were a popular tourist destination; mountain trains had made the region more accessible than it had been in the era of the Romantic search for the Sublime. The vogue for scenic travel extended to the United States, especially to monumental natural wonders such as Niagara Falls. By 1850, Niagara was attracting 50,000 to 60,000 visitors annually, and facilities had sprouted up to cater to their needs. Artists, however, continued to perpetuate the iconography of unspoiled wilderness, as Frederic Church did in his epic Niagara (1857), exhibited with great success at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle.8 Expunging the visible evidence of the encroachments of commerce and industry was common practice. Sargent’s Venetian scenes have few figures, and he edits out the vaporetti and motor-boats that had become common on the canals, not because such elements would detract from the postcard vedute, but because his formal interests lay elsewhere. When Sargent painted in the Alps, his aesthetic aims were equally personal.

Sargent spent his summers from 1904 to 1908 in Val d’Aosta and from 1909 to 1911 at Simplon Pass, in the company of his sisters Emily and Violet and their families. The watercolors that resulted are, emphatically and eccentrically, rarely landscapes per se. Topography is largely ignored. Sargent wrote to his friend Henry Tonks in 1920: “As you know, enormous views and huge skies do not interest me.”9 In many instances, he crops the scene so there is no horizon. Investigating the pictorial possibilities of figures in a landscape, Sargent poses his friends and relatives in the open air, enjoying a variety of low-key pastimes.

In Simplon Pass: Reading (c. 1911), two young ladies laze under turquoise and deep blue parasols—Sargent used parasols both to control the amount of sunlight and to provide nimbus frames for the girls. The models were Dorothy Barnard and Rose Marie Ormond. The catalogue includes a photograph of them posing, and the difference from the finished watercolor is striking. Sargent shifts to a vertical format, which allows him to show more of one girl’s voluminous white skirt, a tour de force of pale blue and lavender washes and sharp white gouache highlights along the creases of the drapery.

Some of the interactions among the figures have a playful charm that testifies to the amiable intimacy of this circle, but many of the images are seductively languorous. Sargent toted around a collection of Turkish garments for his models, as an alternative to Edwardian summer finery. The flowing robes of A Man Seated by a Stream, Val d’Aosta, Purtud (1907) are captured in bold gestures, and the sharp white silhouette of the figure stands out against a nearly-abstract landscape of wet purple, green and brown washes. The artist daringly crops the figure at the forehead. In Zuleika (c. 1906), the artist looks down on the reclining figure of a young woman, veiled and wearing vaguely Eastern garb. The sinuous curve of the body, the stylization of the mask-like face, and the patterning of the dress—blending into the overall decorative flatness of this particular sheet—seem to anticipate Henri Matisse.

In making his twentieth-century watercolors, Sargent follows, for the most part, a nineteenth-century itinerary. But his approach to his subject matter is unconventional, and the works are technically and compositionally experimental. Sargent painted what might be considered his most radical group of watercolors at the Carrara marble quarries in 1911, the year Alfred Stieglits was exhibiting the works of Paul Cézanne. Carrara, the source of the snow white marble prized by sculptors since the Renaissance, was not a tourist destination. Sargent stayed in a rough hut while working there, scrambling around the unearthly landscape of monumental, rough-hewn slabs and admiring the skill and stamina of the quarrymen. In Carrara: A Quarry (1911), the workers—called lizzatori—are mere Lilliputian dashes amidst the enormous white blocks, brilliant against the shadowy, brown-washed sheer vertical of the cliff.

Carrara: Lizzatori I, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection

In Carrara: Lizzatori I (1911), Sargent observes the workers from a low angle, as the more developed figures climb up the rough steps cut into the cliff, carrying coils of rope. Deep blue shadows compress the space, ending in a tight wedge of sky at the top of the sheet. The area’s disorienting, skewed geometry fired Sargent’s visual imagination. As Karen Sherry writes in the catalogue, the “motif of jumbled forms…allowed him to play with the representation of shifting angles and planes.”10

The quarry watercolors, in particular, raise the question: how modern was Sargent? He spent time with Monet, admired Édouard Manet and purchased Manet’s 1880 watercolor Irises at a studio sale in 1885. But he was not tempted to join the modernist movement, as he told his friend Paul Helleu—the subject of one of the few oils in the current exhibition, the marvelous riverbank plein-air painting scene, An Out-of-Doors Study (1889). Sargent wrote Helleu: “Ingres, Raphael and El Greco…these are what I like.”11

Sargent’s watercolors have a twentieth-century look. Often startlingly adventurous, the artist is full of perceptual curiosity as he explores the surface dynamics of each sheet. He is rethinking watercolor as a medium. The catalogue technical essay, by Annette Manick and Antionette Owen, details Sargent’s complex methods, and the Brooklyn installation includes small monitors showing an artist recreating—as nearly as possible—the master’s virtuoso effects. To return to the question at hand, the answer may be that Sargent is modern but not a modernist. Similarly, although he picked up paint-handling effects and broken color from artist friends like Monet, he is not an Impressionist. Pigeonholing him seems futile, since he moved across the world of contemporary styles as deftly as he moved from one art capital to another.

If one overall theme runs through these watercolors, it is the artist’s way of gesturing with light. Carbone singles out Sargent’s “command of glare and reflection.”12 The use of reflection is exemplified by Sargent’s harbor scenes, such as White Ships (c. 1908), painted in Majorca. The dominant ship on the right, with its jutting prow, looms large because of the way the image is cropped, but everything is so infused with light that it feels as buoyant as air. Sargent sketches in masts and rigging with translucent washes: the brownish anchor chain has no more weight than its blue shadow. Aquatic colors dance across the white hulls, and the water reflects the boats under a surface layer of paintstroke ripples.

White Ships, c. 1908, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

Sargent’s expertise with sharp sunlight animates his scenes of Italian gardens. Edith Wharton had a great success with her book Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. Sargent saw these settings as laboratories for the study of light effects. Villa di Marlia, Lucca (1910) depicts a terrace, with side views of a pair of stone river gods. Bright sunlight cuts a path across the terrace, whitening the little trees in their terra cotta pots and illuminating the profile perdu of the sculptures. The play of light and shadow on the balustrade is subtly calibrated, but the most daring element in the composition is the backdrop. This large passage reads simultaneously as dense, dark foliage and an amorphous field of overlapping washes, throwing the sunlit terrace into strong relief. In a Medici Villa (1906) focuses on a spectacular marble fountain, rendered more imposing by the cropping of the image at the top of the sheet. It dwarfs the line of cypresses rising into the sky in the background. Elaborate sculptural decoration supports and embellishes the multi-tiered fountain. Many of the details dissolve in the almost-blinding glare, but Sargent convincingly sketches accents such as the rams’ heads on the upper basin. Because of the low angle, the undersides of the lower and upper basins become focal points. Instead of being conventionally shadowed, they glow in the ambient light, an effect Sargent captures with delicate, multicolored washes.

Occasionally, Sargent turns his attention to the plants in the garden, as in his close-up images Gourds and Pomegranates (both 1908). These are not botanical studies in the nineteenth-century mode of the artist as amateur naturalist, but explorations of the dynamic between illusionistic three-dimensional form and a surface pattern of brushstrokes. Gourds has a persuasive sense of natural orientation. The pale green gourds hang from leafy branches, and their curvaceous forms have real weight. At the same time, the overall foliage pattern quickens the surface with flickering white highlights and blue, green and lavender shadows. Pomegranates would make sense presented vertically or horizontally. The loosely brushed leaves press against the picture plane, and the round shapes and ruby seeds of the fruit, while recognizable, seem to merge into the tapestry-like texture of the painting. Pomegranates might be considered the more avant-garde of the two pictures, but that characterization may be beside the point.

While the art world was divided into academic and modernist camps, Sargent was traveling with his portable painting kit, applying his formidable technique and visual intelligence to making fresh, vigorous art. His twentieth-century watercolors form a significant body of work, as this landmark exhibition demonstrates. The works look exhilaratingly beautiful and are shown to great advantage, in the Brooklyn installation, against pumpkin-colored walls. The superb catalogue explores every aspect of the subject in lively essays. Just as important, the reproductions truly capture Sargent’s luminous color—the works were newly photographed for this project. Generous format plates include expansive details that reveal the artist’s brushwork. “John Singer Sargent Watercolors” is on view April 5–July 28, 2013, at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238. Telephone (718) 638-5000. It travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (October 13, 2013–January 20, 2014) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (March 2–May 26, 2014).


1. Erica E. Hirshler, “Sargent’s Watercolors: Not for Sale,” in Erica E. Hirshler and Teresa A. Carbone, et al., John Singer Sargent Watercolors (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts and Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 2013), p. 46.

2. The Genius of John Ruskin, ed. with an introduction by John D. Rosenberg (Boston, London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 150.

3. Ibid., p. 152.

4. Teresa A. Carbone, “Sunlight on Stone,” in John Singer Sargent Watercolors, p. 193.

5. Annette Blaugrund, “‘Sunshine Captured’: The Development and Dispersement of Sargent’s Watercolors,” in Patricia Hills, et al., John Singer Sargent (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986), p. 209.

6. Cited, Hirshler, p. 31.

7. Carbone, “Bedouin Encounter,” in John Singer Sargent Watercolors, p. 99.

8. Gail S. Davidson, et al., Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in association with Bulfinch Press, 2006), p. 8.

9. Patricia Miller, “‘Painted Diaries’: Sargent’s Late Subject Pictures,” in Hills, John Singer Sargent, p. 195.

10. Karen A. Sherry, “The Quarry,” in John Singer Sargent Watercolors, p. 168.

11. Sherry, “Approaching the Modern,” in John Singer Sargent Watercolors,, p. 193.

12. Carbone, “Sunlight on Stone,” in John Singer Sargent Watercolors,, p. 193. 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3