Simplon Pass: Reading 1911

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of America’s greatest portrait painters. He was a true master of oil painting and was able to capture the soul of the people he painted. Then, in his forties, Sargent abandoned oils to focus on his passion for watercolor. 

I finally had an opportunity to see some of this later work this week at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which is currently showing 93 of his watercolors in an exhibition called John Singer Sargent Watercolors (April 5-July 28, 2013). The paintings feature scenes of Venice, the Alps, country gardens, sailing vessels, and even a few portraits.

The works are enjoyable to look at and certainly demonstrate Sargent’s technical competency at watercolor, but to my mind, these works are too obvious and all surface. They make wonderful postcards, but they lack the psychological depth and intimacy found in his oil portraits. For example, in his masterpiece, Madame X (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Sargent evokes the seething eroticism that lies just beneath the surface. The emotion is repressed and controlled, yet very much part of the painting. Likewise, in the beautifully painted The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine of Fine Arts Boston), Sargent’s unsettling atmosphere of the four young children suggests alienation and the sad loss of innocence.

Madame X
Oil on Canvas
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
Oil on Canvas

Sargent’s watercolors are definitely worth seeing if only to contrast with his oil portraits; yet, I found the most fascinating part of the exhibition to be the videos that are paired with some of the paintings. Each video shows a contemporary artist demonstrating how Sargent might have painted a particular part of a painting. (They make it look so easy.)