Singer's Song

Despite the innovation surrounding him, John Singer Sargent plotted his own restrained course

If Sargent is known for anything besides portraits, it is his watercolors, and this exhibition includes some beauties. Among the best are his scenes of Venice passageways, alleys and canals, in which the watercolor perfectly captures the atmosphere and abstract qualities of the city. If Sargent had done nothing else in his career, he would probably still have become known as one of the best watercolorists who ever worked.

In the latter part of his career, he was given the chance to produce monumental public murals, in his view the greatest of all categories of painting. In 1890, he received the commission for "The Triumph of Religion" for the Boston Public Library; included in this exhibition are several sketches for the bombastic cycle, which was well received in the early 20th century but since has been all but ignored (critic Robert Hughes recently dismissed it unceremoniously as "weird"). This exhibition also includes sketches for murals at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Widener Library. In all these works, Sargent seems out of his element. His compositions are hackneyed and lifeless, vain attempts to enter into a practice that, by the time Sargent got around to it, was already passé.

His struggle with the mural genre notwithstanding, Sargent found himself called upon to perform another public service in 1918. He was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to travel to war-torn France in the final months of World War I to produce a monumental piece commemorating the joint war efforts of British and American soldiers. That large oil painting, "Gassed" (1919), is now the property of the British War Museum and is not included in this exhibition. But on display are several watercolor studies Sargent completed during his tour in 1918.

Sargent's "Spanish Fountain, " 1912, watercolor and graphite
Sargent's "Spanish Fountain, " 1912, watercolor and graphite

As with the public murals, Sargent proved himself oddly unsuited to the task of war reportage. In his watercolor studies, he seems to have been more interested in silent scenes of fields, disinterested mules or tents in the sunlight. "Wheels in Vault" looks like a rustic pastoral in the English countryside; "Truck Convoy" and "Military Camp" contain not the slightest whiff of war. The only soldiers Sargent portrayed here were nude ones bathing in a stream ("Tommies Bathing"), who might as well be frolicking in a Greek arcadian landscape.

Sargent was about as interested in the war as he was in politics or modern art or progress in general -- that is, not at all. Almost completely detached from his times, Sargent's aloofness led him to produce some of the greatest paintings, and some of the strangest, of his era. John Singer Sargent: Beyond the Portrait Studio perfectly captures the anachronistic quality that characterizes so much of Sargent's work; it is, therefore, essential viewing, even if it doesn't make you drool.

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