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Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum & Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Bedouins (1905-1906) from Sargent’s travels in the Middle East and North Africa.

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John Singer Sargent Watercolors

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Through Jan. 20, 2014

Free with MIT ID

“What if Mick Jagger stopped singing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’?” asked MFA curator Erica Hirshler at the opening of John Singer Sargent Watercolors. By 1907, the renowned Gilded Age portraitist John Singer Sargent had effectively abandoned his lucrative career as a portrait artist in favor of landscapes and figure studies in watercolor. It came as a shock to the art world, as if Jagger had given up “Honky Tonk Woman.”

The product of several years work by Hirshler and Brooklyn Museum curator Teresa Carbone, the exhibit features ninety-two watercolors from Sargent’s trips through the Mediterranean and the Middle East, including stunning portrayals of Venetian architecture, Bedouin camps, villa gardens, Alpine scenes, and Italian quarries. All the works date from 1902 to 1911, late in Sargent’s career.

At the time, the Brooklyn Museum and the MFA were fierce rivals for Sargent’s watercolors, aggressively bidding against each other at his 1909 and 1912 exhibits — his only major watercolor exhibitions in the US. Much to the MFA’s chagrin, the Brooklyn Museum purchased the entire contents of the first in 1909. Not to be outdone, the MFA determinedly acquired all the watercolors from his 1912 exhibit. At the time, it was the largest collection of any living painter acquired by the museum.

The turn of the 20th century competition between the museums is certainly a boon for us today. Having conveniently concentrated the bulk of Sargent’s watercolors between them, this is the first time the two collections have been exhibited together.

Sargent’s confident, bold strokes, loosely defined forms, and unexpected vantage points were contrary to contemporary aesthetic standards that called for carefully delineated landscapes and translucent washes in watercolors. One reviewer proclaimed him “an eagle in a dove-cote,” shaking up norms for the medium.

The first part of the exhibit is organized geographically. It starts with watercolors from Venice, one of Sargent’s favorite places to work; he painted more watercolors here than anywhere else. Two renderings of the Baroque-style Basilica Santa Maria della Salute hang side by side. Sargent painted both at the same time, but from different vantage points and using different brushstrokes. One, with tighter, more finished-looking brushstrokes, is from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, and the other, with more blurred forms and blended colors, is from the MFA’s collection.

Sargent’s watercolors from the Middle East dominate the next room. Traveling without the usual entourage of family and friends, he began by visiting popular Biblical tourist sights, but found more artistic inspiration west of the Jordan River among the Bedouin natives. In his iconic Bedouins, depicting two Bedouin men staring intimately at the artist, he carefully renders their facial expressions and the folds in their garments, but leaves the scenery and lower quarter of the painting seemingly unfinished. Bedouins, and his other watercolors from the region, stood out from those by other Western artists in that they do not portray the “middle eastern dystopia” (Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer et al.).

Thereafter, the exhibit is organized by theme. Another room contains figures lying down. Sargent depicts his sister after a strenuous mountain hike and his friends dressed in Palestinian outfits in the Swiss Alps. Clearly Sargent was fascinated by white-on-white watercolor; something I imagine he took as a technical challenge. The cover painting of the exhibit, Simplon Pass: Reading, shows the young woman’s white skirt comprising two thirds of the composition. In others, the ladies’ skirts make a landscape of their own, with folds that echo the rolling grassy hills and mountain range.

Sargent was also keen to capture light on different surfaces. Hanging next to each other are an oil painting and watercolor of a babbling brook that he painted the same afternoon (Val d’Aosta, A Stream over Rocks). Sargent was unique in his time for treating watercolor not just as a preliminary medium for oil paintings, but as final works in their own right. Val d’Aosta was contemporary with Monet’s Water Lilies and the exhibit helpfully hangs a small picture of Monet’s piece next to Sargent’s work for comparison.

Other themes in the following rooms include light on stone, watercraft, and Italian gardens. His watercolors from the quarries of Carrara, a source of fine sculpture marble since ancient times, border on the abstract, highlighting the light and edges in the scenery. The quarries were certainly not a tourist destination. Hirshler explains “Sargent didn’t paint to travel, but rather traveled to paint.”

Although Sargent was bored and frustrated with the formulaic portraiture he created for wealthy patrons (“swagger portraits,” as one reviewer called them), there are still some portraits in his watercolor exhibit, albeit of a different character. A Tramp shows a vagrant, up close, staring intently at the viewer. Sargent depicts his subject with care and beauty but without the costume and definitely without the “swagger.” It hangs across the room from The Cashmere Shawl, which is closer to his traditional portraiture, and shows a tall, confident woman in front of a rusticated wall, wrapped in an exquisite shawl.

The exhibit also contains a few selected watercolors by Sargent’s friend Edward Darley Boit in a “learning gallery,” followed by a film of an artist recreating Sargent’s White Ships. In addition, the MFA is hosting painting classes in Sargent’s style along with gallery talks throughout the exhibit’s tenure.

Hirshler says she hopes the exhibit will inspire visitors to tune into sunlight a little differently; she hopes we’ll notice it on stones, columns, homes, and gardens with a fresh perspective. Certainly the exhibit did that for me. It also gave me a greater appreciation for Sargent’s artistic courage, and made me feel like an intimate fellow traveler on his artistic journeys.