John Singer Sargent Watercolors at the MFA

by Johnny Monsarrat

Known for his portraits, John Singer Sargent was one of the finest artists of the late 19th century, and his works are a strength at the MFA, which has 500 of them. Now they’re presenting a new exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors, which runs through January 20, 2014. You’ll find, for example, watercolor scenes of Venice. Sargent was fluent in Italian and often traveled to Italy, always working while his family relaxed.

Although Sargent is not generally included in the impressionists, the watercolors force him to be impressionist, because watery ink bleeds. Thus sharp lines are difficult to create, unless you use a knife to abrade away the paint, a technique Sargent used sparingly. Look up close at his paintings and they are impressionistic, shapeless blobs. You have to pull back to see the clarity of the scene, and that’s where his technique is apparent. How can one brush stroke, a couple of blobs, form together when you stand back to make something real? Called the most important portrait artist of his age, Sargent clearly has the ability to focus on faces, and you’ll find a more traditional painting, called “The Tramp”, which is a portrait where the face is the focus. But in most of Sargent’s watercolors, the faces of the figures are left blank or only hinted at, with Sargent’s emphasis placed on the surroundings.

As such, the paintings seem like an exploration of shadow and lighting, rather than an exploration of people and their moods. If you look at complexity of the reflection of light, for example, it becomes clearer why Sargent would choose everyday motifs such as Arabs making a sail, or have his figures in shadow. The paintings just aren’t about the people, who are often doing mundane things such as reclining, reading a book, or talking, in the slightly shapeless impressionist strokes. One painting called Unloading Plaster shows two nudes rowing towards a ship, but you don’t actually see any plaster, and can barely make out the nudes. Why would nude people unload plaster? What is plaster and why does it need unloading? It seems a bit pointless until you study the hues, which are strictly kept to a brown-green-blue array. By removing the ‘distraction’ of shape, Sargent focus on light and color pops out, and it’s this complexity — the ships, the water, the sails, the shadow — that make the painting sing.

Singer takes this concept even further in some paintings where not only are the people sidelined, not even nature seems to be important. Blocks at a quarry are either devoid of people or have one solitary figure in the corner. Workmen climbing stairs in a quarry face away from us, carrying packs of gear that mask them almost completely, and devoid of the clear attention that Sargent gave to the rocks around them. In some paintings, not even the trees or grass take the eye away from the starkness of the stone. The final distraction to be removed is shape, which seems less important to Singer than playing with heavily contrasting colors that show shading.

At the exhibit, you’ll find a video that shows how watercolors are made, and I liked the inclusion of Edward Boit because Boit’s watercolors demonstrate how far Sargent had gone off the main path. Boit’s watercolors are traditional, beautiful but normal, darker that Sargent’s and with a fuller range of colors. Boit’s watercolors have plenty of definition of shape and show realism for example in a wide scene of Venice with Venezian gondolas. If that was the practice at the time, no wonder that Sargent’s works stood out.

The MFA combined two collections of works to form this exhibition, which is unique and the largest ever display of Singer watercolors. So if this is your thing, you must see it. Learn more and buy tickets at