Sargent & Prendergast
Why wait for summer? Three MFAH exhibits warm the heart and mind
After six years of commuting to Boston to see my partner, I’ve come to appreciate Houston’s enviable winters. Little did I suspect Boston would repay Houston with a little Mediterranean sun on a grim Valentine’s Day weekend, courtesy of Maurice Prendergast and John Singer Sargent at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Three landmark exhibits of painters much loved by Boston patrons Isabella Stewart Gardener and Sarah Choate Sears debut today: Prendergast in Italy,Sargent and the Sea, and Houston’s Sargents. If by the end of these three shows packed full of firsts you don’t feel transported to warmer climes, you’ll have to wait for summer.
By the time Maurice Prendergast put brush to paper, art lovers were as tired of images of Venice as Houstonians are now weary of gray skies and persistent downpour. But it was the genius of Prendergast to make Venice sing again, and Prendergast in Italy shows us exactly how.
This is the first show to assemble the Italian works of this great watercolorist and a rare opportunity that Houston shares with the Williams College Museum of Art, which owns so many of these works, and Venice, Prendergast’s muse. Venice was, of course, a city built on and at the edge of water, which the shimmering textures of paintings like Splash of Sunshine and Rain (1899) capture marvelously. Viewers will be treated to Venice’s signature bridges and romantic gondolas, but more compelling are the images of St. Mark’s Place and of the distinctive local festivals and processions. The luminous Festa del Redentore (1899) and the rare mosaic Festa Grand Canal (1899) will thaw the coldest Houstonian with their warmth and light.
We might call Sargent and the Sea, the very first gathering of Sargent’s maritime works, a “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” This renowned portrait painter was fascinated with sand, surf, and the wild swells of sea. Entering the gallery, you’ll see the sublime Atlantic Storm(1876) full of such intense aquatic colors that you might dive in the deadly waters even as tiny passengers cower on the ship’s prow. Sargent’s inspiration came from his first transatlantic voyage. The inclusion of sketches, an original sketchbook, and Sargent’s only extant scrapbook expose a draftsman learning his craft with studies of rigging, masts, and crew. But make no mistake: Sargent was no slouch at the age of 16 and turned the isolation and discomfort of a long, rough cruise into deep sea treasure.
The recently rediscovered Atlantic Sunset (1876), which he painted after this maiden voyage, offers peaceful, milky seas and shadowy derelicts. The stark contrasts of light in Sargent’s fiercely articulated landscapes are nowhere more stunning than in En route pour la pêche (1878), which features women and children setting off to fish in three versions, including a recently rediscovered sketch. Or, better yet, roll around on the glittering shores of Capri, which Sargent captures perfectly. It may not be Galveston Bay, but you feel you could step out on the beach in search of your own catch.
Of course, we learn from Houston’s Sargents that the Bayou City has always been hospitable to the artist. Impressively, Houston boasts the most privately-held Sargents outside of New York and Boston. Here we enter the world of patrons and portraits, which were fantastically reflected on the polished marble floors.
The languorous, Mediterranean Young Man in Reverie (1878) entices with his sleepy diffidence but the star of the room is the masterful Madame Ramón Subercaseaux (1880-1). The wife of the Chilean ambassador to France turns from her piano in a luscious cascading dress to say something we can’t quite hear. Sargent proves himself meticulous with respect to details he himself arranged (down to the choice of dress) yet attentive to the power of immediacy. And if you can stand any more water after all the recent rain, the lovely By the River shows a Sargent enamored of the English countryside during his London years. This Sargent turns not to the raging seas and skies of his early years but to the softening influence of Monet’s Water Lilies. Nothing’s more restful than the calm after a storm.