Brooklyn Museum Reveals Sargent’s Master Strokes

Sargent’s masterful 1908 White Ships. Translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Sargent’s masterful 1908 White Ships that he likely painted in a day. Translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Back in 1909, John Singer Sargent’s watercolor show at Knoedler was considered a knockout, drawing discerning crowds in awe of his sensational technique. The images of Bedouin life, Venice, and boats on the Mediterranean were so compelling that the Brooklyn Museum raced in to buy 83 (nearly all of them), forcing Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to wait until 1912, when they could clean out his entire next watercolor show.

Bedouins

Bedouins (c.1905–6). Opaque and translucent watercolor, Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Walking into John Singer Sargent Watercolor on Brooklyn’s Fourth Floor, you can see why the two great institutions went crazy. With 93 of their finest Sargent purchases collectively displayed, it’s impossible for visitors to pick the most spectacular. They’re all exceptional – the Bedouin horses at rest inside the tent, Sargent’s niece wrapped in her cashmere shawl, the cliffs of the Carrara quarries, and the lush Medici gardens.

How did he make such magnificent work with such an unforgiving medium? How did he whip them out? The two museums asked a team of conservators and curators to put the works under the microscope and ultraviolet light to discern more about the master’s process – the sequence of paint application, the types of paint used, and whether he did a pencil sketch before applying paint to paper.

The team gives visitors insights to the scientific process used — an unusual twist at the back of the gallery that visitors poured through enthusiastically. Brooklyn’s digital team installed a 30-second video in which paper conservator Toni Owen asks visitors what more they’d like to know. Here’s the site where she answers with comments on Sargent’s use of gouache, soft-wax resist, yellow paints, and the difficulties of explaining false-color infrared imaging (FCIR) in limited-space wall text in the gallery.

Carrara: A Quarry (1911). Translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Photo: © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Carrara: A Quarry (1911). Translucent and opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Photo: © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

You’ll learn that Mr. Sargent painted very fast, did not rely on photographs, and did at least one watercolor sitting in a gondola.

Brooklyn’s integrating much more media into its visual art shows, and they’ve hit upon a winning combination here. Some videos show the gardens that were the subjects of Sargent’s work in Italy. Others explain the techniques that Sargent used in the painting next to it.

Listen as artist Monika deVries Gohlke reflects on the type of day Mr. Sargent might have experienced working on his 1908 Melon Boat painting. Watch as she prepares the watercolors, selects his colors, chooses his brushes, and attempts to recreate his “jungle” of shapes and impressions. Does her painting look like his? You be the judge and go get your own paintbox.

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