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Archive for November, 2013

There are 40 works of art by John Singer Sargent on display at the Michael Altman Gallery, 38 East 70th, New York, N.Y.   (and a couple more in the free catalog) .  The show is soon to close, so call before going. 212 879 0002

The show  is in a newly and beautifully refurbished “town house” which is, itself, a work of art.   Don’t get your hopes up that there are 40 watercolors.  There is a mixture of watercolors and oils, mostly oils, with a few charcoal studies.   Most are lent to the gallery and only a few were on sale.  Thus this could be called an “exhibit D’esteem” (or however one would write that it French. )  That is, this is an exhibit intended to increase the standing of the gallery in the eyes of the world –and Oh Boy does it.  All of the work is wonderful.

However, what the outcome of mixing the watercolors with the oils is that they are remarkably similar, and Mr. Altman seems to have recognized that.  There are oils of subjects known for the watercolors Sargent did of them.  In the catalog, for example, there is this spread which is part of a watercolor on the left and part of an oil on the right of subject matter we have seem before.  Altman is on to something.  It’s not that easy to tell which is which until you get close.

mixed water:oil

We’ve all seen this subject of Sargent’s friends and relatives taking a nap in the Alps but who knew he did both watercolors and oils of the same subject matter?

under bridge water

This is the watercolor from under the Rialto Bridge in Venice which was in the Brooklyn Museums show.

under bridge oil

And here is the oil of the same subject at Altman’s.  He’s at the exact same spot.  Do you think he brought both oils and watercolors the same day?   Or did he do the oil from the watercolor.?  How did he make the decision about the water?  In the watercolor it’s the blue that stands out, and in the oil it’s the orange.  I, myself, think the oil is the better picture because the colors in the lights are more vivid.

If we start with the oils, we can see that Sargent really smears the stuff on.  There are a couple of portraits with a slightly off white (a very small amount of raw sienna and white?) smudge down the nose for the highlight that could almost have been put of there by squeezing the paint out of the tube.  It is not descriptive of the nose, but is more an icon of a highlight.  There was one portrait of a young girl with a square of white on her forehead with no attempt to blend in the ends or make the square a more realistic and organic form.  It works at a distance, but once you see it stands out as if it were floating before her forehead a bit.

There is a wonderful remembrance of Sargent teaching a young lady, who, not having much money, had put tiny dots of paint on her palette.  To her dismay Sargent grabbed her paint tubes and squeezed huge  blobs out.    You can see the loaded brush work in the oil paints.  He’s that way with the watercolor paint as well, what we would call “juicy”.

Also Sargent is not concerned with detail.   That’s more associated with oil sketches than watercolor which is often precise with a pencil drawing showing underneath.   Look at the doorway across the canal.  In the oil it lists to the left.  Sargent had a problem with vertical lines and had a weight attached to a line to help him get images plumb in the studio.  In a gondola he probably didn’t take it along.  But my point is the lack of definition particularly in the watercolor.

I think , the bottom line for me, is that Sargent took his oil technique to the watercolor work, and it worked for him. We , or at least I, have Mr. Altman to thank for that insight.  The next time I go out with my watercolors, I am going to try to imagine I’m painting in oils.

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