Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sargent: The Watercolours - a review

You have one week left to visit the Sargent: The Watercolours exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London.

This is the first major UK exhibition of watercolours by the Anglo-American artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), since 1918.

I've been going to go to this exhibition all summer and for one reason and another didn't go until last Friday.

I now wish I'd gone earlier as I greatly enjoyed it - and would have paid a second visit.

Instead I made made a lot of notes about it! This post:
  • tells you how the exhibition is organised 
  • shares images of some of the watercolour paintings in the exhibitions
  • plus videos highlighting each section
  • summarises my notes of aspects of his watercolour practice that I noticed
At the end if references various other blog posts about Sargent on this blog.  I refer to John Singer Sargent as JSS below as I've been doing this for years!

I'd recommend this exhibition to those who select work for exhibitions of "watercolours" as a reminder of what watercolour is supposed to look like when handled by an expert artist. (see recent posts about What does "watercolour" mean to you? and 10 Best Paintings in the Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition) plus my very long blog post about the topic of What is watercolour? back in 2009)

Sargent: The Watercolours

The exhibition displays works from 30 lenders - including a number of works in private collections that I've never ever seen before in exhibitions or in books.  Lenders include:
  • UK: Tate, The British Museum, The Fitzwilliam, The Imperial War Museum and The Ashmolean, alongside works rarely seen from numerous private collections. 
  • Europe: Museu de Montserrat, Abadia de Montserrat, Barcelona; the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon and the Petit Palais, Musee de Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.
John Singer Sargent, Loggia, View at the Generalife, c. 1912, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 39.4 x 53.2 cm, 
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. 
Purchased in 1927, half the auction price met by Sir James Murray 
The exhibition is divided into sections which are:
  • Fragments and close-ups 
  • Cities - 
  • Landscapes
  • Figures
Online booking for viewing the exhibition means a number of timed slots for visiting the exhibition have already sold out. However there are a limited number of walk-up tickets will be available each day - but you do need to arrive early to avoid disappointment.

Catalogue cover
You can park in Gallery Road where there are no parking restrictions.

The catalogue

For those unable to get to see the exhibition you can see ALL the paintings (but just a few of the photographs) in the exhibition in the catalogue Sargent: The WatercoloursThere are lots available still in the Gallery shop but for some reason it's not listed in their online shop.

[This is the links for readers living in the USA - Sargent: The Watercolours]

Summary of my notes

Most of the watercolours are from a period after 1900 when JSS tended to take a couple of trips a year to Europe - typically the Alps and southern Europe and always Venice every year - for plein air painting and sketching with family and friends.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass, c. 1910-11,
Unknown photographer 
Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Fragments and close-ups 

  • He obviously like architecture - but prefers to sketch sections of it. My first note says "pillars and pedestals" - because there's a lot of them!  
John Singer Sargent, Rome: An Architectural Study, c. 1906-7, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 34.9 x 50.2 cm, 
Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC 
  • mainly working on rough or laid paper - watercolour on top of a quick pencil sketch
  • much use of "wet in wet"
  • sometimes he rules lines e.g. where there is a frieze which has a geometric nicety
  • a number of the sketchy paintings exhibit an almost abstract quality
  • plein air sketches are sometimes VERY sketchy
  • evidence that he adds colour after he lifts the tape
  • he presents his motifs in unexpected ways and seems to defy the 'rules of composition'
    • extracts the subject from its context 
    • evidence of bold crops to focus on what interests him 
    • uses asymmetry a lot
    • uses some very odd angles and perspectives
John Singer Sargent, The Dogana, Statue of Fortune, c. 1909-11, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 48.3 cm x 34.9 cm, 
Private Collection 

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Fountain, 1912, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 53.3 x 34.6 cm, 
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 
  • what's not at all clear from reproductions but is self-evident when viewing them in person is just how much body colour he used - for effects. 
    • The water cascades in the Spanish Fountain are all white body colour and 
    • pale washes of body colour have been used for the reflected light markings on the underside of the fountain.
  • a number are more refined and appear to be more like studies for subsequent oil paintings (eg the views of the loggia - see my blog post Realism or Impressionism? from 2007)
One of the most impressive paintings for me was A Tarpaulin over a Dug-out, Ransart - which comes from the period when JSS was a war artist in 2018. It's the property of the Imperial War Museum.  It's the classic of attempting to describe shadows and highlights of a white subject on white paper using only watercolour.  The shadows are described in washes of blue, mauve, grey and pale yellow and combinations of the same. It's a mini-masterclass in its own right!

A Tarpaulin over a Dug-out, Ransart
A Tarpaulin over a Dug-out, Ransart
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1616)


John Singer Sargent, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, c. 1904-9, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 36.7 x 53.8 cm, 
© Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira 
There's range of paintings from very simple panoramas of Constantinople in a very restrained pallette to very complex paintings of the complexity of boats and gondolas in Venice.

Broadly speaking if it's a JSS painting of a city then it's a painting of Venice!

My notes summarised as follows:
  • painted very few cityscapes - he's happier painting boats
  • JSS uses COLOURED body colour to paint indications of water over other colours.
    • very find of light blue and peach for restrained use of body colour
    • some of the ropes are painted over sky ie dry brush mark has blue underneath ie evidence of use of body colour in dry brush
    • the dots of body colour on the man in Vue de Venise (sur le canal) (the link is to a very pale representation) are much more like an oil painters - I think at times he can't quite restrain himself from thinking how to paint in oil!
  • colours are anything but flat
    • use of wet on wet means the colour is constantly moving and modulated
    • use of layers of strokes of colour provides optical mixing
  • colour palette is restrained
    • blue and brown (sepia and umber) are his favourite colours plus he also introduces red, orange and turquoise. Very little if any yellow
    • uses blues, mauves and purples for shadows a lot


enormous views and huge skies do not tempt meJohn Singer Sargent
There are lots of paintings of family and friends in the exhibition - most of which are in the figures section of the exhibition. 

However when plein air painting in the landscape he often paints those painting with him as part of the landscape - but they are most "staffage" than portraits.

John Singer Sargent, A Glacier Stream in the Alps, c. 1909-11, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 33.3 x 49.5 cm, 
Laing Art Gallery (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums). 
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images 
The landscape section has a lot of paintings of the various ways in which he treated water.

The masterful painting below was deposited with the Diploma Collection of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1908. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had painters like JSS exhibiting with the RWS today?

John Singer Sargent, Bed of a Torrent, c. 1904, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 36 x 51 cm, 
Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger 
Notes include:

  • mostly he focuses on a small part of a landscape
  • he loves boulders, clear alpine streams
  • limited paintings of trees - mostly olive and cypress trees associated with the Mediterranean
  • he frequently blurs backgrounds and paints as the eye sees - with more detail in the foreground and less in the background


His figures are a mix of family and friends - and people he has encountered on his travels.

Sometimes his paintings are an exercise in painting - again the one of how to paint white on white paper crops up.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, with body colour, 65 x 54 cm, 
Museu de Montserrat. Donated by J. Sala Ardiz. Image © Dani Rovira 
Speaking personally I've never ever had any doubt that JSS was gay - even if this rarely gets mentioned in critical tomes. He invariably chooses to paint men - apart from female family and friends when painting for pleasure. His paintings of nude males whenever he gets a chance also speak loudly on his behalf. In the main they are just studies but very occasionally there's a hint of lewdness as in the painting of the tommies below. You can't see it in this image - but it's very clear from the painting that soldiers in kilts wore nothing underneath - and that this composition was not accidental!

John Singer Sargent, Highlanders Resting at the Front, 1918, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, 34.3 cm x 53.5 cm, 
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 
That said, obviously while he was a war painter, it was inevitable he would paint soldiers as in the Spanish convalescent soldiers below.  It takes an expert in painting people to be able to record figures with so few brushstrokes!

John Singer Sargent, Group of Spanish Convalescent Soldiers, c. 1903, 
watercolour on paper, over preliminary pencil, with body colour, 29.9 cm x 40.7 cm, 
Private Collection 
There is no question that his skills come from his abilities to:

  • seeing what is front of him with his own unique eye
  • know the tones that colours need to be rendered in order to make sense of painting from a little distance
  • know how "dibs and dabs' will resolve from a few feet
  • control washes - so they are never flat, infrequently exhibit "cauliflowers", often have lost edges and always make colours more interesting.

However I was left wondering how much his career as a portrait painter had influenced his eye and limited his ability to vision pictures of wider vistas given his tendency to stay away from big landscapes and cityscapes

I came away more convinced than ever that he really likes to crop down and always focuses on what really interests him.


I've been writing about Sargent on this blog for a long time. Here's a small sample of some of my posts:

Art Exhibitions

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