Portrait of Madame X, John Singer Sargent’s most famous painting, still causes controversy. It’s rumored that this artist who made his living painting conventional portraits was attracted to the bizarre. What is not controversial is the belief that he was one of the finest American artists. Oddly, he never lived in America.
Born in 1856 to an American couple in Italy, Sargent was trained as an artist in Paris and made his home mainly in London. He specialized in landscape and figure paintings but became bored with them about the turn of the 20th century and shook up his life. He turned to a difficult medium, watercolor, and traveled south to find unconventional subjects. He made 7 trips to Venice. He went to Corfu in the Greek Isles and experimented with the intense Mediterranean/Aegean light that drove Monet crazy. He painted 150 subjects using graphite underdrawings and wax to contain and set the watercolors to achieve the effect of, say, water spilling from a fountain.
In 1909 and 1912 the results of his efforts were exhibited in New York. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum bought a lot. Their collections were never exhibited together. Until the 21st century.
Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Museum’s show of 93 Sargents from this period closed. Fortunately, the same show opened in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts on October 13, 2013, and stayed until January 20, 2014. It then traveled to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and stayed until spring, 2014.
It was AN unparalleled grouping of his little seen watercolors that probably won’t be brought together again. Ruth & I saw it in Brooklyn. The exhibit included a video showing Sargent’s painting techniques during this watercolor period. Watching it and wandering about, I learned a lot I didn’t know. I had heard about Carrara marble all of my life and knew it came from Italy, but there are about 500 source quarries for it. No wonder it’s in so many buildings! Sargent did at least 15 watercolors using these quarries as subjects.
Nine of his oil paintings like “Dolce Far Niente” (seen above) were also part of this show. Models and family members doing nothing but enjoying life’s sweetness in the Alps was an unconventional subject at the time Sargent painted it. If you want to see the mysterious Madame X, you’ll have to go to The Met in New York City, not the excellent Brooklyn Museum.