The Swagger of John Singer Sargent

‘The Great Gatsby Man’

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To the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London this week to see the watercolours of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the American artist who spent much of his life travelling in Europe and the Middle East, that is….when he wasn’t painting portraits of wealthy Americans.  It’s fair to say that his oil portraits of American and European aristocracy have eclipsed his work in watercolour which is a shame in my opinion.   Probably his most famous portrait is that of  Madame X which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Albeit the preserve of the upper class back in the late 1800s, having one’s portrait painted in oil was perhaps the precursor to today’s selfie generation.  Singer Sargent once said that every time he unveiled a portrait, he lost a friend and therein lies his appeal since his sitters knew full well that he did not always flatter his subjects.  Nevertheless, hope trumps fear evidently.

Reverting to watercolour painting after long periods on portrait commissions provided the artist with a sense of artistic renewal, a respite from the demands of portraiture meant that he was free to escape from the studio to en plain air particularly on his annual Venetian pilgrimage accompanied by his sister and nieces. These trips abroad proved to be hugely successful because of the fertile material it provided him and consequently his output was prolific. His life would seem to have been an indulgent one with little responsibility at home, neither wife nor children to interrupt his work resulting in the freedom to travel extensively with his entourage some of whom were accomplished artists in their own right.

Singer Sargent’s watercolours sparkle with light and colour and reveal his zest for life so much so that as you step from one painting to the next in this Dulwich exhibition, you can almost sense his joyful enthusiasm bouncing off the images.  The artist had a wonderful command of light and was attuned to the melancholic beauty of the gardens and villas in Spain and France.  There is a freedom of expression in his watercolours especially where he defies the conventional rules of composition meaning that instead of painting a scene from a ‘regular’ perspective, his focus and therefore our attention is on the small details, for example, the hull of a boat, the corner of a building in Venice, or water gushing over the pebbles in a stream.  Instead of painting the majestic Grecian villa, he paints the hut at the end of the garden with a lightness of touch evocative of a luminous Mediterranean setting.   So he is naturally drawn to less glamorous scenes and sees beauty in the most unlikely places.  His watercolours emit an almost photographic expression because of the off centre depiction, a snapshot detail of a composition.  Evidently Singer Sargent was influenced by the new technology of the day i.e., the first camera was sold in 1888 and he had access to one.  We know this because some fascinating photographs of him and his companions are included in this exhibition and show him at work in sumptuous Mediterranean surroundings.

One of my favourites painting out of the eighty on show at this exhibition is The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, pictured below.

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This church proves to be one of his favourite motifs not just because he adopts startling points of view,  cropping a segment of a scene similar to a wonky snapshot, but he manages to make his paintings look three dimensional with dazzling virtuosity.

If you have read The Great Gatsby, then it is easy to imagine a scene where John Singer Sargent is centre stage among friends such as Edith Wharton.   After his death, he was referred to as the ‘The Great Gatsby man’ because of the similarities between his life and that of characters in the book which was first published in 1925.   He is buried in Surrey in England.

As I left the exhibition pondering Singer Sargent’s obvious pleasure in painting watercolours and how that joy is transmitted to the viewer,  I entered the main body of the Gallery and was stopped in my tracks by the first painting to catch my eye: a Venetian scene acutely observed by Canaletto.    The juxtaposition of the ‘modern’ , pre-impressionist work of Singer Sargent against the mesmerising wealth of detail and depth of a Canaletto did admitedly dampen my enthusiasm slightly for the American.  After all, who in this world or the next would wish to be compared to the genius of Canaletto.

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