See the vibrancy of watercolours come to life with the American painter John Singer Sargent's masterful strokes in this exhibition - the first of its kind in the UK in nearly a century, writes Jane Kelly
A young woman lolls beneath a gigantic white parasol. Her exquisite face is so flushed and she is so abundantly swathed in fine fabrics, her billowing skirt taking up over half the painting, that she seems about to faint or fall deeply, blissfully asleep in the summer heat.
It’s almost a shock to find that this vibrant image of feminine languor is only a watercolour, a medium long consigned to Sunday painters who pride themselves on rigid accuracy and visual cliché. John Singer Sargent painted this portrait of his niece Rose-Marie in the Simplon in 1911 and for him the use of watercolour marked a radical change in his life.
Born in Florence in 1856 to peripatetic American parents of modest means, by sheer talent and graft he’d become the leading portrait painter of his generation. He was internationally famous for his remarkable technical facility displayed in full length images of aristocratic women such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and their children, and dynamic portraits of men such as Lord Ribblesdale, Auguste Rodin, Robert Louis Stephenson and Henry James.
He completed about 14 works a year for the equivalent of a million dollars a piece with clients travelling from the US to Europe to sit for him. In 1900, aged 44, he put down his oils and gave up portraits, exhausted by the stress of taking commissions. He escaped outdoors, travelling with friends and family around the Alps, Venice and southern Europe, far from the salons of the rich. The normally docile medium of water-colour became his conduit for freedom, comment and experimentation.
This exhibition in south London, the first in 100 years to show his works on paper, has been curated by Richard Ormond CBE, the grandson of Violet Ormond, Sargent’s sister, and Elaine Kilmurray, an expert on the painter. They’ve divided 80 works into four groups. The first room, ‘Fragments,’ means in the modern sense, close-ups. It shows how completely he had abandoned the large, grand image for small overlooked details, shapes and shadows, his ‘translucent moments.’
His fragments are as strong as finished works; a tiled section of patio somewhere in the Alhambra, an architectural slice through a column in Rome, the green slimy steps of a palace in Venice, the brilliant Spanish Fountain (1912), cropped on four sides so he can concentrate on what really interests him; spouting arcs of water making reflections in the pool below. The cherubs holding up a large basin seem almost alive and everything is modelled entirely through tone and reflected light.
We also see his intense interest in fishing boats and rigging, he creates an armature of bowsprits and masts, in long, confident streaks of wash. It seems that he was accidentally making great work while searching for a subject.
Section two is 'Cities'. In Venice, which he visited every autumn, he often painted in gondolas, literally fluid as he sketches iconic buildings obliquely as he floats past, giving as much worth to side-canals and industrial sites. Everything he paints seems to shimmer, nothing is still, with light fizzing off every pillar and solid shape.
Then we move on to 'Landscapes'. Painting outside in the countryside became a fashionable Edwardian pastime, but in small images he seems to have challenged himself to depict the effect of light on Alpine streams, boulder strewn valleys and olive groves. Many people at that time could paint accomplished watercolours but here we see a painter using strong bold colour, wax and white body colour, and moving into abstraction in the struggle to capture light.
This section includes is an exquisite little painting of Mar Saba, an Orthodox monastery in the Kidron Valley, east of Bethlehem, given by the Ormond family to Sir Edward Heath.
Rightly or not, his figure paintings in the final room are really the ravishing climax of the show; Bedouin women, blind Spanish musicians in Granada, Spanish convalescent soldiers broadly washed in with extreme fluidity, and his grandmother Violet, painted in 1883, then a slender teenager.
There is a particular poignancy about them for the modern viewer. Many of his beautiful young subjects (including many of the little boys in his earlier oils) are about to die, their world of leisure and refinement with them. In 1914 Rose-Marie’s young husband was killed in action. Four years later she died when a German shell hit the church of Saint-Gervais where she was listening to a concert.
Sargent’s most famous war painting, Gassed, a large oil now in the Imperial War Museum, was begun shortly before Rose-Marie died. He readily took his watercolour palette to war. It proved excellent for making quick, lively sketches such as war weary Scottish Highlanders shown at the front in France, resting on bales of hay. He used his skill to show the machinery of war such as equipment in a shell smashed mill in Arras, northern France, and a tarpaulin flung over a dug-out nearby. Even in that mundane subject the fabric painted with washes of violet, grey and pale yellow, is treated with as much exuberance as the folds in Rose-Marie’s skirt.
He found relief from the stresses of war in watercolour life painting. Delicate male nudes, freely painted demonstrate his acute skill as a draughtsman. In Nude Man Lying on a Bed, (1917), which looks post-coital, the shape of a swimsuit on a boy’s relaxed tanned body, suggesting a brief interlude of pleasure. Sargent was despised by The Bloomsbury Group and seen by their critic Roger Fry as a relic of a bygone age, but these small works on paper are worthy of any expressionistic, Modernist painter. He painted relentlessly all his life and here we see the fruits of that honest labour and his quest for truth.
Sargent: The Watercolours is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 October 2017
Jane Kelly is a freelance writer, Spear’s contributor and painter