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Landmark exhibition "John Singer Sargent: Watercolors" opens at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Simplon Pass: The Lesson, 1911. Translucent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist, over graphite on paper. The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened the landmark exhibition John Singer Sargent Watercolors on October 13, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see works by this beloved artist at the height of his artistic powers. Renowned in Boston, Sargent was internationally recognized as the greatest American painter of his age. The exhibition, on view through January 20, 2014, allows visitors to see Sargent reinvent himself as an artist for the 20th century as he mastered the watercolor medium. The 92 watercolors on display were made during Sargent’s painting trips throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and they include stunning portrayals of Venetian architecture, Bedouin camps, villa gardens, intertwined figures and sun-struck stone. To provide additional insight, 10 Sargent oil paintings are also on view, and for comparison, four by Sargent’s friend Edward Darley Boit and three by British watercolorists.

The show marks the first time in history that the two most significant collections of Sargent’s watercolors, from the MFA and the Brooklyn Museum, are on view together. In addition, numerous public programs that take a behind-the-scenes look at the artist’s life and art are being presented by the Museum, including a multimedia presentation, mobile guide, watercolor demonstrations and more. An accompanying publication, authored by co-curators Erica Hirshler of the MFA and Teresa Carbone of the Brooklyn Museum, explores Sargent’s relationship to watercolor and the technical brilliance of his work.

“By showing these works in such strength, visitors will appreciate the brilliance of Sargent’s watercolors, which were the most intimate and personal works of his career,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “This exhibition celebrates a complex artist and we are proud of the MFA’s role, past and present, in presenting Sargent’s legacy in Boston and around the world.”

Born in Italy to American parents, Sargent (1856–1925) considered Boston his American home. He first earned fame for his portraits, among them the masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), which is on view in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing in a gallery dedicated to the painter. As he evolved as an artist, he developed his skill as a watercolorist, making dynamic images of landscapes and figures. Saying “they give me pleasure to do and pleasure to keep,” Sargent participated in only two major watercolor exhibitions in the United States during his lifetime. The first, held in New York and Boston in 1909, caused a sensation, with its entire contents quickly purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. The equally acclaimed second show in 1912 was bought out by the MFA even before it opened. Sargent’s wish that his watercolors go only as complete sets to a single museum was fulfilled. Thus the watercolors in the exhibition, united here for the first time, were personally selected by Sargent to represent his finest efforts in the medium.

“These watercolors are full of joy and freedom,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Art of the Americas. “They show an artist recreating himself for a new century, rediscovering his creativity and his passion for making works of art.”

This exhibition, held in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, traces Sargent’s immersion in subjects he loved, set against the backdrop of his travels across Europe and the Middle East. The daringly conceived compositions—made in Portugal, Greece, Switzerland and the Alps, regions of Italy and the Ottoman Levant (present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria)—demonstrate the unity of his artistic vision after the turn of the 20th century, when he sought to liberate himself from the burden of portrait commissions and devoted himself instead to painting landscape, labor and leisure. Selected to expand understanding of Sargent’s artistic vision, the exhibition also presents 10 oil paintings of related subjects, including An Out-of-Doors Study, Paul Helleu and His Wife (1889), and The Master and His Pupils (1914).

“By bringing this stunning collection of Sargent’s work to his adoptive American hometown, the MFA once again proves why it’s regarded as a premiere cultural destination here in Boston and amongst the best around the world,” said Anne Finucane, global strategy and marketing officer, Bank of America. “In all our years working together to increase access to the arts, this is one of the most exciting exhibitions we’ve been a part of.”

The exhibition interweaves the Brooklyn and MFA works throughout the galleries, grouping them both geographically and by Sargent’s favored themes, such as reclining human figures, abstract landscapes and patterns of light and shadow. Views of Venice, of the Alps, and of the marble quarries at Carrara demonstrate Sargent’s keen eye for beauty in both expected and unexpected locations. Visitors can exult in Sargent’s mastery of this difficult medium, enjoying the splendor of these singular works while also learning about the techniques he used to make them so unusual and compelling.

Watercolors from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection date from 1902 to 1908 and represent a range of approaches to watercolor, from blurred wet washes that bleed onto the paper to evoke a watery canal to highly finished architectural scenes underpinned by careful pencil outlines. The powerful portrait Bedouins (1905–6), considered by the artist to be the keynote work of his Bedouin series, demonstrates that Sargent’s skill as a portraitist extended to his watercolors. Gourds (1908), painted in Majorca, Spain, reveals Sargent’s mastery of complex techniques, illustrating the fall of light as it flickers through leaves and the heavy fruit. In The Bridge of Sighs (1903–4), Sargent conjures a sense of a Venetian gondola’s movement through the city, while Mountain Fire (about 1905-07) flirts with abstraction in its depiction of smoke and mist in the Alps.

Having missed out in 1909, the MFA was determined to acquire Sargent’s next watercolors and made its plans early. As talks began about a potential purchase, Sargent must have known he was painting for the MFA. Many of his later watercolors were different in character from those in the first group; they are often larger and more highly finished, and many are formally signed. In December of 1911, in Sargent’s studio in London, the MFA made its final arrangements. By the turn of the New Year, it was official, and all the watercolors on view at the 1912 exhibition in New York were destined for the MFA. At the time, it was the largest collection of any living painter acquired by the Museum.

On view more than a century ago to rave reviews, the watercolors in the MFA’s collection are comprised of varied subjects. While apparently informal, the portrait Simplon Pass: Reading (about 1911) was meticulously arranged, with Sargent orchestrating the women, their parasols, and their skirts to create a stunning exploration of tinted whites and colored shadows. The Cashmere Shawl (about 1911), featuring Sargent’s niece wrapped in a favorite prop, comes as close as any of his watercolors to his grand portraits in oil with their sense of luxury and sweeping movement. Also in the MFA’s collection are 12 images of the marble quarries at Carrara, an unparalleled exploration of sunlight on stone; views of the sundrenched gardens of Italy, and the tour-de-force Corfu: Lights and Shadows (1909), a piece that proves the statement made by the artist’s first biographer that Sargent’s watercolors were “sunlight captured and held.”

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