I am always reading about interesting art exhibits around the world, and while I hardly have the time or budget to visit them all, I have decided to do a series of posts highlighting them here. Maybe you will have the opportunity to visit and report back on these “Museum Mondays” so I may live vicariously through you! For this first week though, I thought I’d start with the City that I live in, and one of the largest exhibits this fall- John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors.
I don’t know where my passion for art museums came from. One of the earliest museum memories I have is of course, visiting the MET as a kid with my school on one of our yearly field-trips. The book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was also one of my favorite reads in third grade (can you imagine living in a museum!?) But I think my enthusiasm really solidified when my parents took us to see the John Singer Sargent oils exhibit at the MFA way back in 1999 (don’t I feel old!) It was a big deal, and the first modern retrospective for the artist- and how fitting that it was in the City of Boston, his American home and at the Museum so closely tied to his history- he after all painted the murals on the ceiling there! Either way, I remember driving up from New York and experiencing masterpieces such as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Fumee d’Ambre Gris which to this day, remain some of my favorite paintings. In fact, when I visited London 4 years later, I INSISTED to my Aunt that we visit the Tate just so I could see “Carnation” in person again. So imagine my delight when I learned that once again the MFA would be doing a collection of Sargent’s works, and this time specifically, his amazing watercolors.
When Sargent began painting in watercolor, he was already a well established portrait artist. Everyone can agree he had mastered the art of oil painting and it is suggested that he was becoming flat out bored. He needed a change of medium, and he craved to take his easel out in the field and around the world. Which is exactly what he did: traveling to deserts of Syria and the canals of Venice. However, while anyone who saw them gave the paintings glowing reviews, Sargent largely considered these watercolors to be for himself, they gave him great pleasure and they were NOT FOR SALE.
His friend from Boston, Mr Edward Darley Boit (yes, the one with the daughters), insisted that he consider putting the pieces in an exhibit and selling- and Sargent agreed – but ONLY if the works were sold as a collection. I get the impression Sargent hoped the works would land at the MFA, but in a twist, the Brooklyn Museum won the collection of 83 works. Sargent was soon certain that the patrons in Boston, realizing they had missed out, would also want a watercolor collection of their own. So of course, for this second round, he spent more effort creating each one- a little less of a “study in watercolor” and instead more standalone pieces of art. The pieces were larger and most of them were signed. In the end, the MFA acquired the collection of 45. This current exhibit brings the paintings from both collections back together in one place. It is interesting to compare and contrast!
Sargent’s watercolor painting are very unique in the way they are created. In fact, there is a video playing at the exhibit where an artist tries to recreate one of the paintings- it was incredible to see how she had to work to achieve the lightness of the brushstrokes while at the same time creating such dark opaque colors.
What else makes these watercolors special? Well at the end of the day, they are still very Sargent. It has been said, that NO artist has been quite able to capture white the way that he was. Take his work “Reading” as an example. The whites in her dress are not pure white brushstrokes, but also grays and blues and yellows and even the slightest tint of green reflecting from her parasol. There is also an entire room of watercolors capturing the carrara marble quarries in Italy. The immense stones are cast in 1000s of shades of white and gray.
John Singer Sargent Watercolors is running now through January 20th at the MFA- and I have a membership if you are looking for a tour guide! Nick and I attended the opening for this exhibit so I can say firsthand how magnificent it is. I hope you have the opportunity to visit. (And if you are wondering, yes- it wasn’t by accident that I chose to wear a watercolor print dress)