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Sunlight on paper: Monumental exhibit showcases John Singer Sargent's watercolor paintings

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MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 The Bridge of Sighs
John Singer Sargent, The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903–04, translucent and opaque watercolor with graphite and red-pigmented underdrawing, Brooklyn Museum, purchased by Special Subscription. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Simplon Pass Reading
John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: Reading, c. 1911, opaque and translucent watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection, Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photo courtesy of © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Bedouins
John Singer Sargent, Bedouins, c. 1905–06, opaque and translucent watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, purchased by Special Subscription. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 in a Medici Villa
John Singer Sargent, In a Medici Villa, 1906, translucent watercolor and touches of opaque watercolor with graphite underdrawing, Brooklyn Museum, purchased by Special Subscription. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Villa di Marlia
John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca: A Fountain, 1910, translucent watercolor and touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection, Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Photo courtesy of © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 The Bridge of Sighs
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Simplon Pass Reading
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Bedouins
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 in a Medici Villa
MFAH John Singer Sargent March 2014 Villa di Marlia
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John Singer Sargent achieved world renown in the late 19th century as a portrait painter, perhaps the greatest portrait painter of that era. But according to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Gary Tinterow, watercolors were his private work, “ to exercise his eye and to practice his hand,” and that private work would make him into “one of the greatest watercolorist who has ever lived.”

Sargent wanted those watercolors to remain private, but was later convinced to show his these paintings in two exhibitions in New York, one in 1909 the other in 1912. The entirety of the 1909 exhibition was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. The watercolors in the 1912 show went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 “Houston private collectors have more works by Sargent than private collectors in any other city in America.” 

Now a hundred years later the two collections have finally been brought together for one monumental exhibition, John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the only other institution, alongside Brooklyn and Boston to present it.

Why Houston? Well, Tinterow believes it’s comes down to Houstonians’ affinity for Sargent.

“There’s a reason why our colleagues in Boston and Brooklyn proposed that this exhibition should come to Houston — they could have sent it anywhere they wanted — and that’s because they recognized that Houston has a long history of appreciating Sargent’s work,” explained Tinterow, also noting “Houston private collectors have more works by Sargent than private collectors in any other city in America.”

Mastery of water and paint

The exhibition of over 90 watercolors and a few select oils has been organized around themes and motifs that Sargent came back to again and again throughout this period. Viewers of the exhibition may find themselves wandering through galleries filled with Italian gardens, Venetian waterways, reclining figures, and Alpine summer landscapes without ever noticing which museum owns which painting. Instead, the focus will perhaps always stay on Sargent’s mastery of water and paint to recreate sunlight on paper.

There are two exceptions to the mixed organization of the exhibition. The second gallery is filled with paintings from Brooklyn’s collection which Sargent painted of the Bedouin people during his time in the Ottoman Levant, which at the time encompassed Jerusalem, Beirut and Syria. It might be at touch ironic that Brooklyn should have purchased these paints as Sargent’s trip the region was to do research for the commissioned large mural cycle Triumph of Religion for the Boston Public Library.

Far removed from the lush greens of Florentine gardens or watery beauty of Venice, the paintings from the marble quarries of Carrara become the ultimate study of white on white.

According to Erica Hirschler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sargent became fascinated by the Bedouin, and we can see from the intimacy of the paintings that they were also fascinated by him, allowing him into their encampments where Sargent could depict with watercolor their lives in sunlight and shade.

Near the end of the exhibition, are a set of watercolors Sargent painted specifically for the 1912 exhibition which went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Far removed from the lush greens of Florentine gardens or watery beauty of Venice, the paintings from the marble quarries of Carrara become the ultimate study of white on white, and light on white stone, so much so that portions of the works move into the abstract.

On an preview walkthrough of the exhibition, Hirschler highlighted the unconventional angles and and croppings found in many of the watercolors. Whether it be the cliffs of marble in Carrara or the side views of Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice, Sargent depicts light hitting only a fragment of an object or space so that viewers seldom see the entire structure or landscape in one piece.

Hirschler believes this to be a very modern, 20th century way of looking at the world. Only by looking at the works together do we get the whole picture.

Thanks to John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors, we now can.

The exhibition is on view until May 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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