American Art · Art History · Spotlight on Artists

A Selection of Watercolors by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, “La Riva”, c. 1903-1904, watercolor, 14″ x 20 1/16″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo from brooklynmuseum.org.
John Singer Sargent, “White Ships”, c. 1908, watercolor, 13 7/8″ x 19 3/8″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo from brooklynmuseum.org.

This post contains a selection of eleven watercolors from the exhibition catalog of John Singer Sargent Watercolors. These works constitute what I hope is a reasonably representative sample of the different styles, techniques, color palates, and approaches to the medium that Sargent used at various times and places.

John Singer Sargent, “Boboli”, c. 1906, watercolor over graphite on paper, 18 1/8″ x 11 7/16″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo form brooklynmuseum.org.
John Singer Sargent, “Villa di Marlia, Lucca”, 1910, watercolor and wax resist over graphite on paper, 15 15/16″ x 20 15/16″, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo from mfa.org.

The examples draw from most, but not all, of the categories of Sargent’s most frequent subject matter enumerated in the book, including Carrera quarry scenes, boats, statuary, Italian gardens, and so forth. They are also among the pieces I feel are most visually effective.

John Singer Sargent, “Bedouins”, 1905-1906, watercolor on paper, 18″ x 12″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo from brooklynmuseum.org.
John Singer Sargent, “Simplon Pass: The Foreground”, c. 1909-1911, watercolor and wax resist over graphite on paper, 14 1/16″ x 20 1/16″, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo from mfa.org.

I enjoyed some of Sargent’s watercolors more than others. I found some to be exciting, dynamic, and innovative, while others seemed somewhat insubstantial in color, composition, or line. It is not that I necessarily prefer the more detailed works; in fact, some of the most detailed watercolors were among my least favorites because they often gave little sense of personality or place.

John Singer Sargent, “Brook Among Rocks”, c. 1906-1908, watercolor over graphite on paper, 14″ x 20 1/16″, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo from mfa.org.
John Singer Sargent, “Carrara: Lizzatori I”, 1911, watercolor and wax resist over graphite on paper, 20 7/8″ x 15 7/8″, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo from mfa.org.

I found that the most effective works tended to be quite complex in terms of the types of brushstrokes and the juxtaposition of marks, forms, and lines, but they were not particularly heavy in mimetic detail. They also made use of the vibrant colors, varying textures, strong contrasts of both color and brushstrokes, and semi-abstracted but still comprehensible forms. They tended not to include large areas of white paper or thick strokes of uniform color, especially of the lighter tones.

John Singer Sargent, “Mountain Fire”, c. 1906-1907, watercolor on paper, 14 1/16″ x 20″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo from brooklynmuseum.org.
John Singer Sargent, “Pomegranates”, 1908, watercolor over pencil on paper, 21 3/16″ x 14 7/16″, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo from brooklynmuseum.org.

John Singer Sargent Watercolors is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for another ten days. If you can’t make it there by then, you can see them any time in the exhibition catalog, Hirshler, Erica E. and Teresa A. Carbone. John Singer Sargent Watercolors. Boston: MFA Publications, 2013.

John Singer Sargent, “Corfu: Lights and Shadows”, 1909, watercolor and wax resist over graphite on paper, 15 7/8″ x 20 7/8″, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo from mfa.org.
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