The Brooklyn Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts are mounting a once-in-a-century exhibition. For the first time since the two museums vied in 1909 to purchase large caches of John Singer Sargent’s dazzling watercolors, they are displaying their respective collections in a joint show. This is a must-see event for anyone who wants to bask in some of the most gorgeous depictions of blinding sunlight and cool shade that have ever been created.
Sargent’s paintings landed in the staid world of Victorian watercolors like an “eagle in a dovecoate,” wrote a British critic. Sargent had been producing watercolors since his peripatetic childhood in the capitals of Europe, but they had almost never been seen in public until London’s Carfax Gallery exhibited them in three shows from 1903 to 1908. They were an immediate sensation. The Anglo-American watercolor tradition had featured transparent washes and muted colors over a meticulous recording of topographical or architectural detail. This “scrupulous fidelity” to nature, as American painter Asher Duran put it, obeyed a moral and spiritual mandate: to document God’s handiwork with “solemnity and purpose,” in the words of British essayist John Ruskin.
Sargent’s watercolors were shockingly hedonistic by comparison. Culled for those first London shows from his sojourns in Venice, the Middle East, and the gardens of Tuscany, they ignored any alleged duty to reproduce either the minutiae or panoramic scope of a scene; Sargent instead selected only those cropped features where the play of light and contrasting colors interested his voracious eye. His brushstrokes were loose and free, his palette brilliant, showing an uncanny ability to convey how sun bounces off of stone and penetrates the surface of water.
Critical and popular response to the Carfax shows was almost universally ecstatic. Sargent was “strong above any of his fellow exhibitors,” observed one reviewer. After the 1908 show—with 48 canvases, the largest to date—Sargent’s friend and fellow painter Edward Darley Boit suggested an American debut for the works. Only two Sargent watercolors—one a gift to his friend William Merritt Chase—had been shown in the U.S., one each in Philadelphia in 1905 and 1906. These did not prepare the public for the 86 watercolors that arrived at New York’s Knoedler & Company gallery in 1909. The effect was once again cataclysmic. “Only a man of genius could have done this work,” wrote critic Royall Cortissoz. Viewers waited for hours to get into the gallery; some days, people were turned away.
Until that point, Sargent had refused to sell his watercolors. “These sketches keep up my morale,” he said to a friend in 1903. During the preparations for the Knoedler show, he told Boit that he would break his embargo only if the paintings were bought en masse by an Eastern museum or collector, since “they only amount to anything when taken as a lot together.” (Anyone who has ever lusted after just one Sargent watercolor would beg to differ.) Two days after the Knoedler show opened, that offer came. A. Augustus Healy, a leather merchant and president of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, proposed buying the lot at a price of Sargent’s choosing. A flurry of crossed cables and letters ensued between Boit, his brother Robert, Roland Knoedler, and the London-based Sargent, who expressed a preference for a Boston or New York (rather than Brooklyn) museum. Robert Boit reached out to Francis Higginson, a Museum of Fine Arts trustee, and within two hours, Higginson had showed up at Boit’s door with an offer of $10,000 to $15,000. Too late: Sargent had already accepted Healy’s offer of $20,000 by the time he received Higginson’s bid. Brooklyn was now the proud owner of 83 of the 86 Knoedler watercolors.
Boston would not be bereft for long. Planning started almost immediately for another American show at Knoedler’s, but this time the MFA was determined not to lose out. The MFA’s curator of paintings, Jean Guiffrey, travelled to Sargent’s London studio in December 1911 to purchase the 45 paintings (for approximately $11,250) planned for the show before they were even put on display. This was the largest collection of a living artist that the museum had ever bought, the press excitedly announced. Though Sargent voiced doubts that his second American exhibit would be “as good a show this time,” he needn’t have worried. These are “inspiring and joyous works,” wrote American Art News, in a typical response. The halls at Knoedler’s were again packed when the show opened in March 1912, as they were later at the MFA. The Boston watercolors, painted as a command performance rather than for Sargent’s own consumption, were larger and generally more finished than the earlier Brooklyn group, the former of which range from fleeting sketches to more deliberately composed compositions over penciled armature. Taken together, however, the Brooklyn and Boston collections form a seamless whole of breathtaking beauty.
Sargent’s Italian garden paintings make up the astounding core of the joint show, now in Brooklyn until July 28 and opening in Boston on October 12. As a child, Sargent had played in the grand Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, and over the course of his family’s travels had absorbed the unique interplay in Italy’s courtly gardens of the decorative imagination and nature’s softening power. Sargent drew better than any of his contemporaries, a capacity he perfected in classes at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts as a teen, and that precision of eye and hand explains how he manages to convey the exact essence of Rococo sculptural form through the most minimalist of brushstrokes.
Boboli Gardens, from about 1906, epitomizes Sargent’s theatrical sprezzatura. Typical of his preference for a focused slice of a landscape, rather than a synoptic recording, he selects two fountains at the periphery of a large reflecting pool. He renders the statues that stand atop the large dripping basins of water in incomplete daubs of opaque delft-blue paint; they vaporize into near abstractions against a grey sky and the smudge of a blue-green hedge that surrounds the reflecting pool. The fluted basins beneath the statues, however, plump out into three dimensions through a pearlescent spectrum of whites and grays, while bursts of yellow break through the backdrop hedge and streak the stone pavement. The theatrical effects are even more striking in a Boston painting from 1910: Florence: Fountain, Boboli Gardens. Here the fountain basins from around the same reflecting pool glow with an intensity that recalls the footlights in a Degas ballet scene, jumping out from the haze of towering foliage behind them in a thin white halo.
Boston’s three watercolors from the Villa di Marlia in Lucca are more formally complex than the Brooklyn garden scenes, but they show the same mysterious command of light—whether radiating from a Kelly-green lawn, igniting rotund lemons, or turning a crème-colored stone urn into a glowing lantern. Brooklyn’s Gourds, from 1908, is a peerless example of Sargent’s ability to achieve a trompe-l’oeil precision through the most seemingly casual of means. The heavy pendant fruit, their curves rendered in subtly graded washes, pop out from the fluidly abstract vines and leaves as if a sculpture were appended to the paper.
Sargent’s watercraft paintings bring an even gayer summer palette to the show: oranges, peaches, reds, and ice blues dance across the water surface and bounce off the prows of closely moored ships. As a youth, Sargent had produced numerous maritime works, perhaps inspired by his New England ancestors’ seafaring history, but his wildly successful portrait career in the 1880s and 1890s eclipsed that subject matter. He returned in the 1900s to nautical themes, rendering them almost exclusively in watercolor. The early twentieth-century art dealer Martin Birnbaum observed that Sargent “set himself the most terrifying problems” on paper, a comment that could well apply to the tangle of masts, sheets, and anchor lines in Brooklyn’s White Ships, which Sargent renders fully readable. The massive sail in Brooklyn’s Melon Boats, filling nearly the entire upper half of the page, radiates with the same mysterious effulgence as the Italian garden statuary.
It might be tempting to attribute the brilliance of Sargent’s aquarelles to the arid, Mediterranean-type climates he favored, so unlike the humid Hudson Valley and Eastern seaboard frequented by many of his American predecessors. Yet the eye, it turns out, is all. The Venice of Sargent’s contemporary Whistler is all smoke and mystery, whereas the Venice of Sargent’s watercolors, nearly always captured from a gondola, is clarity itself—a celadon lagoon lapping up against sun-drenched buildings.
Fed up with his clients’ foibles, Sargent finally extricated himself from all formal portrait commissions in 1907, despite persistently high demand. He continued more spontaneous engagements with the human form in watercolor, however. Brooklyn’s The Tramp is a reminder that his oil portraits were prized not just for the ravishing elegance that he conferred on his subjects, but also for his acute understanding of personality. With a few free but surgically placed brushstrokes, Sargent brings out the soulful dignity of his sitter, whose piercing gaze is accentuated by two white dots in his pupils. (Sargent’s father in fact was a surgeon who illustrated his own medical treatise.)
The early twentieth-century modernists, suspicious of Sargent’s success, refused to acknowledge him as one of their own. A few percipient critics, however, understood his radical vision. Since giving up portraits, Sargent had been producing works that would have been thought as “wild as cubist fancies 30 years ago,” wrote critic John C. Van Dyke in 1919. Sargent’s brushstrokes straddle a mimetic and an abstract function; the squiggles of sky-blue paint on the largest ship in Melon Boats are livelier than any Jackson Pollock; the plaster surfaces in The Garden Wall more interestingly etched than a Cy Twombly. A few critics rejected Sargent’s work precisely because they grasped its iconoclasm. A British reviewer for The Builder, writing on the Venice watercolors, groused that he did not “want to see ‘The Doge’s Palace’ and the Library reduced to a mere almost shapeless scumble of half made-out forms.” And then there’s modernist mouthpiece Roger Fry, who produced the most asinine misreading of Sargent’s watercolors ever penned: “What he sees is exactly what the average upper-class tourist sees. Everything is as striking as it is obvious.” To the contrary, to live in a world that Sargent made would present an almost unbearable encounter with constant, unaccustomed beauty. Fry’s mischaracterization of Sargent as mundane is all the odder, since his own sober, controlled watercolors were squarely within the conservative British tradition.
Fortunately, A. Augustus Healy and Francis Higginson saw these works for the treasures that they are. And the present-day curators of their respective museums have created a show that does ample justice to their farsighted purchases. The catalogue is eloquent, erudite, and free of the self-indulgent jargon that passes for art criticism today. You would never guess that the Brooklyn Museum has been chasing the phantom of political and pop cultural relevance for the last decade and a half. This show is a reminder of the century of wise acquisitions that have given the Brooklyn Museum one of the most important collections of American watercolors and the MFA one of the greatest collections of Sargent’s entire output, oil as well as watercolor. Anyone within range of Brooklyn or Boston should rush to see it.