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Reviews from the Denver Exhibition of "Sargent and Italy"

Alive From Denver  
A review by Jim Niendorff 
© 2003 all rights reserved by author 
printed with permission <> 
"Italy 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, for allowing me to relive that part of my teen years, albeit in a visual way rather than an acoustic one.   

The Tour 

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 Art Museum. 


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. 
Opening Act 

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. 
Set List 

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. 

Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(1)    Mountain 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. 
Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(2)    Woman Reclining (circa 1911). 

(3)    Rose-Marie 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 strokes. 

(4)    Turkish Woman at a Stream  (circa 1907). 

Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(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. 

Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(6)     Purtava 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). 

(7)     Daphne (1910). 

(8)     Perseus (1907). 

(9)     Fountain of Bologna (circa 1906). 

(10)    The Great Fountain of Bologna (circa 1906). 
Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(11)       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. 

(12)     Villa Torlonia (1907). 

(13)     Boboli Gardens (1907). 
Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(14)     Boboli 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. 
Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(15)     Santa 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. 

(16)     On the Steps of the Salute (On the Grand Canal) (circa 1906). 
Please, someone send me this image and become a Friend of the JSS Gallery
(17)     Campo 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 

(18)     Venice, Sailing Boat (circa 1903). 

(19)     Scuola di San Rocco (circa 1903). 

(20)     Small Canal Venice (circa 1902). 

(21)     The Rialto, Venice (circa 1907-1911). 

(22)     Doorway  of a Venetian Palace (circa 1906-1910). 

(23)     Palzzo Grimani (circa 1907). 

(24)     Venice the Prison (circa 1903). 

(25)     The 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  

I'll Second That, 
A 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 follows: 

1. Introduction 

2. Early Italy Capri Trip and the Venetian Studies 

3.The Italian Alps in Oils and Watercolors 

4. More Italian Alps 

5.The Portraits  

6. Florence and the gardens -- make your own postcards 

7. 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. 

Mrs. Ralph Curtis 

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 Venice. 

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. 

Some Other Thoughts

From: "genway gao" 

Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2003 

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 too.   

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!

Genway Gao 

From: Natasha 

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 "San 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. 


From  "Simone Simonian" <> 
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.  

Genway is one of my resident skeptics who saw problems with the Madame Ramon Subercaseaux painting as well as the Mrs Charles Russell painting at the Retrospective Exhibiton back in 1999. 

Whether you agree with him or not you HAVE to give him credit for being a VERY astute observer.  




The Capri and Rosina paintings



By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2003 all rights reserved
Created 7/28/2003
Updated 10/31/2003 boo