By Rob Weir, Visiting Professor of History
I know someone who teaches at a private school because it supports his folk music career, a yoga teacher who used to pay the bills through editing, and a landscape painter whose paychecks come from illustration work. As songwriter Charlie King once put it, “Our lives are more than our work/And our work is more than our jobs.” Keep that in mind when you venture to Boston to see John Singer Sargent’s watercolors.
And venture forth you should. There are nearly 100 works he produced between 1902-11 and there’s not a dud in the lot. These images are John Singer Sargent as few of us think of him. Sargent (1856-1925) was renowned as the portrait artist of choice for the Gilded Age elite, and small wonder — few artists of his day matched his eye or technique in oil and few in all of art history had his mastery of painting white on white or black on black. So good was Sargent that our mental images of late nineteenth-century upper crust Boston are largely conjured from paintings hung upon the walls of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).
As sublime as the oils are, the MFA’s watercolor show is a breath of fresh air. Several forces collided that led Sargent away from formal portraiture and freed him to produce the bold gouaches, washes, and watercolors on display. First, as in our time, he who is in fashion one season is bound to be out the next. As Gilded Age society waned at the fin de siècle, so too did demand for Sargent’s services. He was, in short, yesterday’s painter. But a painter he remained — one who mastered the craft of the past and was vitally interested in the new. His oils occasionally showed familiarity with Impressionism, but his watercolors embody his love of the form. With fewer commissions that he had to paint, Sargent produced things that were personally meaningful.
Second, and more importantly, Sargent was as bored with society as it had become with him. He moved easily among American elites, but he was trained in Europe and was, in many ways, more continental than Back Bay Boston. The official story is that he was a bachelor, but he was probably gay. He certainly spent a lot of time abroad and was rumored to let his hair down considerably when outside of Victorian parlors. We see only echoes of Sargent’s audacious side in America — notably his scandalous Madame X (1889), but most of the offerings in the MFA come from his overseas sojourns: the watery blues of Venice, the stark contrasts of Palestine, the blinding sunlight of Corfu, muscled quarry workers in Italy, the lush mountains of Switzerland…
Call it reverse Madame X in that what he produced in Europe is only occasionally controlled. In a superb video at the end of the exhibition, painter Monika de Vries seeks to reproduce Sargent’s Portuguese Boats and argues that he worked quickly and impressionistically, as if he were a man freeing his hand and his soul. Forget the dignified drawing rooms of his oils; here we see louche gondoliers lounging in their boats, bold Bedouins glaring full-face frontward, carefree males plopped lazily outside a government building, and stone cutters smoking and enjoying their lunch. We get the idea that Sargent was probably more comfortable with this lot than the business class of Beacon Hill.
Above all there is the riot of color. Forget white dresses against a white background. In his watercolors Sargent gives us white laundry drying above a green lawn — except that lawn is splashed with pinks, yellows, browns, blues, purples, and mauves. There is a magnificent sun-dappled whitewashed cottage from Corfu in which the spidery shadows are just about every color except white.
Toward the end of his life Sargent had a last Boston hurrah — the stunning murals painted for the Boston Public Library. These too are better known than his watercolors, but once you see those, you’re likely to conclude that the happiest period of Sargent’s life was the one in which he was out of the public limelight and free to follow his muses rather than his commissions.