Sargent: The Watercolours

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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There are stories of John Singer Sargent painting in the field: sploshing colour around with sponges, hissing at his paper, muttering to himself. The American artist is best known for his fantastically accomplished, mildly eccentric society portraits. He was the classic expat Yank Europhile, courting favour (and occasionally opprobrium) among monied sorts in Paris and London. Alongside his day job, though, he painted watercolours throughout his life, and this show of them, the first in this country since 19-bloody-18 reveals Sargent’s manic devotion to his craft. He returns to the same subjects over and over. Venice in particular obsessed him: he would paint in a gondola, so his perspective on the city is sea-level, with buildings and boats looming over the viewer, dashing in the rippling, ever-changing light and water. You sense his freedom away from the salon and the studio: constantly starting over, revelling in the never-finishable. You can see the influence of photography, too. Scenes are tightly, weirdly cropped: nothing is polite or planned. Elsewhere, there are superb studies of Alpine torrents and glacial moraines. Unlike a lot of watercolourists, Sargent could actually paint people, and his workmen, recuperating soldiers, friends and family are all accorded the same democratic casual brilliance. I think this is key to this show: in a Europe increasingly divided and class-ridden, Sargent went looking for subjects and places that didn’t have any attendant societal baggage. WWI put paid to all that: Sargent produced his vast canvas ‘Gassed’ (now in the Imperial War Museum) from his experience as a war artist on the Western Front, and there are terse descriptions of wrecked tanks, dugouts and infantrymen here. But he never went back to Europe after the war, and fell out of favour first with his society patrons and then with art tastemakers, who saw him as an anachronism in the age of Picasso and surrealism. This show does reflect some of that, but also shows an artist who sat apart. In the best works here, Sargent is just riffing with his own unbelievable ability, and he can paint like an absolute motherfucker.


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