John Singer Sargent watercolours


Venice, I Gesuiti, c 1909, 55 x 49cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although John Singer Sargent is well known for his society portraits in oils, he was also a painter in watercolours mostly in his later life. His landscapes in this medium are often charming but my particular interest is in the methods he used to paint them.


The low horizon, radiating-lines composition of the painting above gives a monumental feel to the buildings emphasised by the diminutive figures on the ground.

Like many watercolour painters, Sargent often used pencil to draw the main lines of a landscape before applying paint. This painting is no exception but the pencil lines for the steps and part of the buildings are ruled.


Daphne, 1910, 53 x 40cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Painting outside, Sargent positioned himself so that the statue of Daphne was outlined against the cypress behind, adding depth and tonal contrast to the picture. The statue is outlined in pencil but Sargent did not adhere too strictly to these lines when applying paint. He used a wax resist for the red and yellow flowers at the bottom of the picture on the left and on the statue's midriff there is some scraping out which makes use of the lighter tone of the underlying paper.


Gourdes, 1908, 31 x 56cm, Brooklyn Museum

Here again we have a few interesting technical points: the gourdes are painted using transparent washes with the highlights being just paper reserves (i.e. unpainted paper). There are some pencil lines e.g. around the fruit. White body colour is used her and there over which Sargent applies glazes, although with the passage of time cracks are now visible in the body colour.


In Switzerland, 1905, 51 x 36cm Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This portrait is quite unusual in its very foreshortened composition. Sargent uses wax resist on the wall to add texture, scrapes out the laces on the shoes and overdraws with pencil to show head, hands and forearm.


The general feeling when looking at his watercolours is that Sargent was quite willing to use any means at hand to produce the effect he wanted. Certainly his unorthodox ways would cause some watercolour purists to shudder, but even so, his watercolours are very engaging and were painted with no other object in mind than his own delight.

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