John Singer Sargent was until recently looked down on as “a society painter,” but he was much more than that–as an exhibition of his watercolours at the Dulwich Art Gallery shows clearly. Towards the end of his life he abandoned oil painting and concentrated on watercolours. Altogether he painted 2000 watercolours.
As I looked closely at them I wondered why he did them? Was it for money? I don’t think so, his subjects were too idiosyncratic. Was it for fame and critical approval? Perhaps, but I felt he painted them because that’s what painters do to process the world. He had to paint them.They felt very personal. He has a characteristics palate, mostly of rich colours that seem almost to extend beyond what watercolour is expected to be able to convey.
Many of the paintings are of Venice, and he painted its corners, stonework, water, and boats, often to the edge of abstraction, more than he painted the classic views. I’d any day take his watercolours over Canalettos, which seem so mechanical and formulaic to me; but he doesn’t manage to capture the light as effectively as Turner did. He clearly loved Venice, visiting every year in the Autumn for many years. I liked especially his painting of two gondolas on the Grand Canal. They seem to be racing.
Sargent painted water beautifully, and I could feel the chill of the water in his pictures of mountain steams.
And then I could feel the heat and aridity in his painting of the Dead Sea, probably the most abstract picture in the exhibition–and the closest to Turner.
He didn’t give up painting people, and the painting of his niece with her dress dominating the picture is the painting used to promote the exhibition. In his oil painting he painted white, usually that of dresses, exquisitely, and he manages the same in watercolour. Indeed, he likes the challenge of large areas of the same colour, as you could see in his painting of a large tarpaulin spread over a trench vacated at the end of the First World War.
Most of his people are painted in repose, and I felt he advocated the restful, pleasurable, unhurried life.
One of the surprises for me was his paintings of male nudes. They felt highly erotic to me, prompting me to explore what is known of his relationships. He was “a lifelong bachelor” with many friends. Some argue that he had affairs with men and women, while others have concluded, primarily from the evidence of his paintings, that he was gay. Yet again his suppressed sexuality may have been the power that made him a great painter.