From Madame X to Lady Macbeth, the American painter John Singer Sargent built his reputation with miraculous portraits of Edwardian society. But this summer the frocks, corsets and stiff waistcoats are out the window and Sargent’s elusive watercolours are in the spotlight at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
His reputation as a portrait painter might have preceded him, but as a boy Sargent often turned to watercolours for their natural immediacy as washes of paint dried instantly on the page. The works on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery this summer are far from the pastime of any old provincial watercolourist (and believe me it could have gone either way). This is an artist on the edge of modernity. Severing his compositions with harsh angles and lines of perspective, Sargent discombobulates his traditional subject with a radical reworking. The surface is mottled and textured, layered with stains of brilliant colour and flecks of vivid white to create a spectacular sense of three dimensionality. There is a confidence and boldness to these works that reveal an artist willing to slap on a wash of watercolour and never look back.
The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9)
While Sargent was an American by birth, he spent most of his life in Europe and England, where he became the darling of society painters. He travelled extensively through Italy, Spain, France and the Middle East, often in the company of his sister Emily Sargent who was herself an accomplished artist. In one particular image of Emily at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sargent shows his sister at work, a paintbrush playfully gripped between her teeth, her mind turned completely towards the easel in front of her. Through this show the watercolours move through these various destinations, confirming Sargent’s society credentials as someone able to take a typical ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. There is a particular abundance of images from Venice, a city that Sargent returned to frequently and felt a great connection to. In these delicate images Sargent captures the sense of the lapping waters of the canals against the sides of stone steps and piazza walls. You can almost imagine Sargent leaning perilously over the side of a Gondola, his sketchbook in hand as he tries to illustrate the miraculous effects of light all around him.
Then there are the cityscapes of Europe and pastoral scenes of Alpine hills and shaded forests. But the real treasures come at the end, with a series of faintly more familiar figurative studies of the artist’s friends and family. In these paintings, Sargent’s nieces are disguised as reclining odalisques that recline beside babbling brooks and white parasols. A highlight not to miss in this section of the show is the wonderfully erotic and challenging study of a male nude that is a lesson in the human form as well as rich symbolism.
Also not to be missed are the studies from the Western Front, made in 1918 when Sargent was commissioned as an official War Artist. These terrifying images of a torn and ruined landscape seem another world away from the glittering society pictures, which have long been Sargent’s bread and butter, and provide a fascinating contrast to the rest of the show.
Curated by Richard Ormond (often regarded as the foremost expert on his Great uncle’s work), the watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery undoubtably have a wonderful fluency and modernity – but they are lacking that certain swagger. Through the galleries, Ormond works hard to point our how rare it was for Sargent to play with these subjects of the city and pastoral vistas, and how fortunate we are to find a whole collection on our doorstep. But maybe that is the point – teetering on the edge of chocolate box prettiness, Sargent feels like he is resting on his laurels. After such a pleasant show, I can’t help but crave a little more Sargent strut with a few elegant sitters in tow.