by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sargent: the Watercolours

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 21 July 2017
Museum of Montserrat, Barcelona
The Lady with the Umbrella by John Singer Sargent, 1911



When the celebrity portraitist John Singer Sargent announced in 1907 that he was giving up portrait painting altogether it caused general consternation in fashionable society on both sides of the Atlantic.

Happily, he later made one or two exceptions to this rule: notably in 1913 when he painted his friend and fellow American expatriate Henry James, who had persuaded the artist to move to London from Paris in the mid-1880s, creating what has become the most familiar image of novelist (now in the National Portrait Gallery).

Otherwise, in the public realm Sargent largely devoted his efforts to executing two major commissions for murals at Boston's Public Library and its Museum of Fine Arts.

Although the artist's fame during his lifetime rested mostly on his virtuoso oil portraits, which place him among the leading exponents of the genre over the centuries, he described them as his 'breadwinner', 'which I am delighted to get rid of' - contrasting them with his sketches that 'give me pleasure to do + pleasure to keep'. Indeed, as he wrote in 1904: 'These sketches keep up my morale & I never sell them.'

During his lifetime some small batches of these watercolours made their way into museum collections in America and the Imperial War Museum in London; others were given to friends, one exchanged for a piano, a couple given to charities; 75 sold when the contents of his studio in Chelsea were auctioned after his death in 1925 and 200 kept by his sisters. So, they are now very widely dispersed in collections all over the world and, given the delicacy of the medium, few are visible in institutions at any one time.

The current display of 80 works from over 30 lenders at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, is the first time that a large number of Sargent watercolours has been displayed in Britain since the artist himself held a trio of (not-for-sale) shows of them in London in the first decade of the 20th century. The curators are this country's leading experts on the artist, Sargent's great-nephew Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray.

Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to American parents and spent a large part of his life in Europe. His residence in Paris between 1874 and 1886 coincided with the series of shows by the Impressionists and he numbered several of the artists among his friends. He was an inveterate traveller, living to the full his advice to young students: 'Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen.'

After 1900 he made regular journeys to France, Italy, Austria and Spain with excursions further afield to Morocco, Turkey and Holy Land - all of these locations richly represented in the exhibition. These trips were sociable affairs, since the artist was almost invariably accompanied by his sister Emily - herself a fine watercolourist and amusingly recorded, by her brother, palette in hand with an additional brush gripped between her teeth - as well as by fellow artists and family friends.

Since he was painting these works entirely for his own satisfaction, Sargent felt free to experiment with watercolour techniques and develop his own aesthetic. Characteristic of his approach - as is cogently illustrated in the opening section of the show 'Fragments' - was to home in on particular aspects of scenes or buildings, choosing unusual angles and cropping the whole, much as the eye would naturally focus on them.

He even applied this close-up approach to landscapes, as a section devoted to them reveals, often, amid some grand Alpine scene preferring to concentrate on the elusive, fascinating play of light on some pebble- and rock-strewn mountain stream than the surrounding peaks.

He also loved to use upland meadows by the side of sparkling streams as settings to paint a series of lovely studies of young girls reclining in their summer finery or sometimes in more exotic Turkish costumes. His models were family friends and relatives, his favourite being his niece Rose-Marie Ormond. These en plein air works were not without hazards for his models, the artist's manservant Nicola D'Inverno being 'kept busy with a long brush made of tufts of fresh grass, chasing troublesome flies from the patiently posing ladies'.

Rose-Marie Ormond was the model for what is perhaps his masterpiece in this genre, 'The Lady with the Umbrella', from the Museum of Montserrat, Barcelona, and on show in Britain for the first time, an amazingly vibrant study of brilliant light and coruscating drapery.

A couple of years later Rose-Marie married the French art historian Robert André-Michel, but he was killed at the front in 1914. The young widow devoted herself for the rest of the war to nursing the blind in Paris. But she too was killed in 1918 when a long-range German shell hit the church of Saint-Gervais where she was attending a concert.

Among other figure paintings in the last section of the show are two of Sargent's studies made in 1918 behind the lines on the Western Front, of Highland soldiers foraging for apples and resting on a haystack. They offer a poignant contrast to the golden era of peace and tranquillity, captured by the artist in his idyllic images of summer days amid lush mountain landscapes, that was swept away by the Great War.

Sargent: The Watercolours; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; 21 June - 8 October 2017

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023