review by Jim Niendorff
2003 all rights reserved by author
with permission <firstname.lastname@example.org>
is all that one can dream of for beauty and charm."
John Singer Sargent, 1878
When I was teenager, after seeing
a concert, I would write a review of the show: opening act, set list, strong
songs, weak songs and overall impression. I am grateful to Natasha Wallace,
the operator of jssgallery.org, for allowing me to relive that part of
my teen years, albeit in a visual way rather than an acoustic one.
In 2003 an exhibit titled Sargent
and Italy has been moving its way eastward across the United States. First
in Los Angeles and currently in Denver, the exhibit showcases approximately
90 paintings by John Singer Sargent. The show in Denver runs from June
28 Ė September 21, 2003. On July 11 I viewed the exhibit at the Denver
The Denver Art Museum is located
at approximately 12th Avenue and Broadway Street in the southwest part
of Denver. One Denverite described to me the outside of the museum as ďa
castle that was never completed.Ē But do not judge an art museum by its
cover (of cement). The inside of the museum is a charming, well-spaced
structure with a staff that could not have been more helpful. The Sargent
exhibit is located on the first floor of the museum. It takes up about
five rooms and, by my count, consists of 58 oils and 25 watercolors.
And if you do visit the museum, be sure to check out the Singing Sinks
in the washrooms; washing your hands will never be the same.
The opening act consists of an 8-minute
video on the life of Sargent and his progression from painting oil portraits
(ďI shall never again!Ē) to painting watercolors. I recommend seeing the
video, even if you are well versed in Sargent and his life.
As a kid I was fascinated by the
drums. Every song I listened to, I listened for the drums. What was the
drummer doing? What kind of drum kit was he using? Who were his influences?
I unfortunately have retained that myopia, both with songs and with paintings.
I am a watercolorist: on some days an okay watercolorist and on other days,
I pretend to understand the medium of watercolor. And because of
that myopia and interest in watercolors I am presenting the watercolor
part of this exhibit.
The following is a list of the watercolors
in the order they appear in the exhibit. The dates have been supplied by
the Denver Art Museum. I have added my observations to some of the paintings,
but like with most great work, the genuine article must be seen to be appreciated.
A ďhatís offĒ to the museum for not
roping off any of the watercolors, thereby allowing the viewer to
get as close to the painting as he or she desires.
Fire (circa 1903). One of the early tenets that a watercolor
student learns is that ďcool colors recede and warm colors advance.Ē Sargent
often did not play by the watercolor rules, including that rule. The mountains
in the background of this painting appear to be burnt sienna while the
foreground is a combination of blue and green. This painting has a very
strong Japanese/Chinese feel to it, with the foreground having been painted
mostly wet in wet.
(2) Woman Reclining
Ormond Reading in a Cashmere Shawl (circa 1908-1912). Sargent painted
the subject diagonally lying on her back. The diagonal placement creates
a tension in an otherwise serene subject. The painting is further enhanced
with the subjectís head lying on a pillow that appears to have been painted
with prussian blue while in the bottom right of the painting the subjectís
feet are clad in shoes painted with cadmium red. And while the shawl is
a maze of shadows and darks, the facial features were painted in six simple
Woman at a Stream (circa 1907).
(5) In the Tyrol
(1904). The center of this painting is a small waterfall or rapids that
was painted with ultramarine blue and appears to have been done without
the use of any type of masking product or white paint. The background is
one that Sargent used a lot in his watercolors: a mass of varied brushstrokes
that, when viewed closely, appear to be a random process, but when viewed
from afar, dovetail perfectly.
Alpine Scene with Boulders (circa 1904-1908). This painting appears
to have been painted with just three colors: french ultramarine blue, raw
sienna and burnt sienna. I have always been impressed with Sargentís watercolors
of mountains, and especially his series on rock quarries. This painting
is similar in construction to Sargentís painting of a downed World War
I plane (I cannot recall the title).
of Bologna (circa 1906).
(10) The Great
Fountain of Bologna (circa 1906).
Loggia Florence: Sir William Blake (1910). This is a painting of
Blake painting while sitting in a chair on a patio in the left 1/3 of the
work. The hinting at the tools used by the artist Blake are reminiscent
of Sargentís Venice canal paintings in that the technique is a subtle one,
leaving the viewer to piece things together and thereby avoiding a full-blown
assault. The patio area in this painting and the strong vertical posts
and columns on the right side of the painting provide a nice balance.
Garden (circa 1907). This painting consists of three clumps of trees
and a road. The trees are painted in quite a variety of color. I was unable
to determine if the trees were painted wet in wet. The large masses of
the trees coupled with the small road that leads to the back of painting
provide a nice contrast in shapes. It appears that Sargent added white
paint rather than leaving the white of the paper.
Maria Della Salute (sometime after 1900). Strong horizontal lines depicting
the steps make this one of the most oblong paintings at the exhibit. The
placard next to the painting informs that Sargent used a pencil, rather
than paint, in bringing out the steps. This is one of the few paintings
in the exhibit where Sargent painted the entire building, instead of his
usual view of a portion of a building.
On the Steps of the Salute (On the Grand Canal) (circa 1906).
dei Gesuiti (circa 1902).
The remaining watercolors are of
the canals in Venice. Since most of Sargentís watercolors that I have seen
in books are of the canals, I have not provided any commentary
Sailing Boat (circa 1903).
di San Rocco (circa 1903).
Canal Venice (circa 1902).
Rialto, Venice (circa 1907-1911).
of a Venetian Palace (circa 1906-1910).
Grimani (circa 1907).
the Prison (circa 1903).
Piazzetta and the Dogeís Palace (circa 1907).
This exhibit, to me, defines what
it means to paint watercolors. No book could have prepared me for the beauty
of these paintings. Like a building design, the paintings contain no unnecessary
brushstrokes. The paintings have such freshness, are painted with seeming
abandon, and are so deceptively simple in technique, composition and color,
one is tempted to think ďanybody could do that.Ē But, like watching Buddy
Rich play a triplet fill on his drum kit, I know better than to think that.
© 2003, Jim Niendorff a Friend
of the JSS Gallery
post script by Natasha Wallace
I couldn't laud the Denver
Art Museum more for such a beautiful exhibition -- from the way it
was organized, presented, to the friendly way in which they greeted us.
I couldnít have felt more at home, more welcome, I'm even hard pressed
to imagine how I could have enjoyed myself more or how anyone --
anywhere could have presented this better. Not to disparage LA
as I'm sure the enthusiasm of the moment probably had a lot to do with
it, but the feeling apparently was felt by others. In one of the rooms
I talked with a visiting art student who had seen the show in LA and she
offered, without asking, that between the two, the presentation by Denver
was the better by far Ė Denver had done it -- that good!
The show was divided into seven rooms,
Jim being a watercolorist probably isnít counting the introduction area
and the room where they had the drawing postcards (Iíll talk about that
a little later). In fact, room division is a little undefined there towards
the last so it depends on how you interpret it.
The rooms were arranged roughly as
Early Italy Capri Trip and the Venetian Studies
Italian Alps in Oils and Watercolors
More Italian Alps
Florence and the gardens -- make your own postcards
Sargent in Venice, Watercolors and Oils
Once you have your ticket you can
enter any time. There is no audio accompaniment so people move along essentially
at their own pace.
Entering the first room, I found
it dimly lit for the introduction film on Sargent was set off to the side
along with preamble plaques. I immediately recognized the narrative voice
of Jacqueline Bisset from a film documentary produced for PBS (Public Broadcasting
System) in 2000. I assumed the longer documentary had been edited to 15
minutes, and since I had already seen it, I personally skipped it Ė too
much like a child at Christmas, I suppose, ripping the presents open without
noticing the wrapping paper; but I would agree with Jim that itís highly
worthwhile if you havenít seen it.
The only painting
in this introductory room is the only oversized portrait in the show Ė
the rarely publicly seen (until recently) -- the eye-catching Ė the beautiful
Mrs. Ralph Curtis (nee Lisa de Wolfe Colt) whom Sargent painted in 1898.
That she should
be the one that opens and welcomes the visitors is fitting, as it would
be the Curtises whom Sargent had spent so much time with when he was in
As I left her,
the first full-room of paintings brought me back to Sargentís early sojourns
to the country when he was still studying, to some extent, with Carolus-Duran
or just after. The room was filled with his oil studies, none of which
I had never seen before. There were his painting of 1880-1882 along with
his earlier trip to Capri in 1878. The first wall was dedicated to
Capri and the Rosina paintings.
Iím going to write
more when I have time, but I wanted to quickly get my overall impression
of things. Jim has given a nice overview of Sargentís watercolors. The
thing about Sargent, and something that this show only reinforced for me,
is the visceral nature of his art Ė it just canít capture in photographs
or images Ė you just have to see them yourself!
After I walked
through and looked at all the paintings like everyone else 2 or 3 feet
away and made notes about special ones I wanted to comment on publicly
or just notes for my private self, I went back and sat down in the chairs
or stools provided in the middle of many of the rooms and I looked at these
paintings again from some distance away. Itís important to remember the
kind of rooms Sargent had intended these to be seen in, the distance that
he envisioned -- the Manor homes, the large lofts, the large country estates.
Not so much the opulence of his intended clientele, but the dynamics of
the rooms in how much space people would have to see these from.
You see, given the proper distance, some of these painting just come
to life! Now thatís an overused phrase thatís come to mean
very little; but these paintings seem to literally come off the canvas
Ė three dimensional! The otherwise blurred or busy energy of his bravura
style just crystallizes into remarkably sharp and defined images.
Itís fun to see
up close the marvel of this Master as you can literally see every brushstroke,
but donít forget to step back and see the paintings the way he intended
them to be seen. When Sargent painted, he NEVER sat stoic in front of a
canvas. He was always moving back Ė way back, checking his subject against
his painted surface -- from where he intended you to see it -- then
rushing forward with paintbrush to add more. There are really two shows
going on here. Up close a persons gets to peek behind the magicianís curtain
but donít forget to appreciate the affect of his genius from the center
of the each of these rooms.
Date: Fri, 10
I went to see the
LACM's Sargent show of course! This time was with my wife and my 7 years
old son, we had wonderful time in LA, visited Disney and Universal Studio
Anyway I want
you know just few things I noticed at the show. A painting on the wall
(Not again!!!) is reversed from
what it should be in the catalog on page 74, "A street in Venice",
and that is it. Although two other paintings are very suspicious
to me, I have not located who I think is the original painter, and no hard
evidences yet about this so I will hold until I find the facts. But
many things indicated a "fishy" smell from those two paintings.
On pages 34 and
137, both paintings about Cypress trees in San Vigilio [n/a]. The actual
paintings at the exhibition are of a very large canvas format and I have
not seem any works by Sargent using large brushes without the aid of finer
detail work. And as far as I know, almost every primary study and
sketch that I've seen, no artist would ever use such a large and odd size
canvas. The format and size is for exhibition and final works, but the
style is of a sketch, it is more likely done by one of his contemporary
fellow artists and not Sargent.
I don't have solid
evidence yet, but just wanted you know what my feeling were. By the way,
in Italy, San Vigilio is not a specific place, rather a few places have
similar name, so it is confusing.
I still have not
really done any painting myself, but will have the chance to paint in Switzerland
by next month and maybe in Italy, I will let you know when done.
Take care and
wish you have great day!
That is so strange
that you should mention about the paintings of Cypress trees in San Vigilio.
My gut feeling when I saw these paintings as they were on either side of
Vigilio, Lake Garda" was that they struck me as . . . . well
. . . . being something wrong about them. But I got to tell you, I was
with another artist friend when I was seeing the show and my friend went
on and on about these paintings for the very reason that no finer detail
brush was ever used and other people in the room were saying the same things,
about how wonderful these were, the Denver show, along with the catalogue,
as you know, made such a big deal about these paintings. I just repressed
my thoughts that they didn't look quite right to me either!!!!! certainly
there is nothing really that comes close to it (in size like you say) that
I have seen or that is online at the JSS Gallery. Obviously, there is a
lot about his work I don't know and I find it odd that there are
such few other examples in Sargent's work. It would be interesting to know
WHEN these paintings entered Sargent's known oeuvre.
"Simone Simonian" <email@example.com>
Date: Sat, 25 Oct 2003
. . . Did
you get to Los Angeles this summer to see the show at the L.A county? I
did not think that show was all that great, Los Angeles doesn't know how
to show a Sargent show, it was very lack luster in my opinion, however
the boats at San Vigillio(sp?) were outstanding and you need a better picture
of them on your site, the colors of the sails and the water were unbelievable
and breath taking.
Whether you agree
with him or not you HAVE to give him credit for being a VERY