last week my friend smita arranged for me, alaina, anathalia, and another elizabeth for a field trip of sorts at the MFA Boston to meet Erica Hirshler (Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings) and tour the john singer sargent watercolor exhibit. what I thought would be a guided tour was in fact a behind the scenes look at how the exhibit came to be, the origin and inspiration behind the watercolors as well as personal information about sargent himself. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – the watercolors or listening to erica.
let’s start with the fact that I had no idea sargent painted watercolors. the exhibit here “…offers an unprecedented opportunity to view more than 90 brilliant watercolors that sargent produced between 1905 and 1911” and combines the collections of the MFA and the brooklyn museum. before we started erica explained how she approached the exhibit – reframing and matting the brooklyn pieces for a more cohesive look at sargent’s work as a whole, choosing to hang by theme or subject instead of chronological order and she painted different colors in the galleries to help the viewer move from room to room. (she mentioned color names but if you’ve ever wondering what gallery is painted which color, give the MFA a shoutout on twitter and they’ll gladly get you the paint name. it worked last year when I wondered about the mario testino exhibit walls) I appreciated that erica chose to hang a couple key oil paintings to show sargent’s technique and included photographs and a few of sargent’s contemporary watercolorists to emphasize his unique style. an interesting note is that the MFA’s extensive collection came from the 1910 exhibit they commissioned after missing the opportunity to purchase sargent’s first showing of watercolors in NYC when the brooklyn museum bought almost the entire exhibit.
his paintings from venice were created almost entirely for the MFA and are my absolute favorites. sitting in a gondola on the canal, sargent painted magnificent and important buildings but treated them as ‘intimate conversations’ – small abstracts, patterns of light and shadow, suggestions of columns and corners. if you look closely, erica wisely hung them in cinematic sequence – the paintings are of the same row of architecture, but from different points on the canal, and are sitting side by side so when you pass from painting to painting, you essentially travel the canal.
can I tell you a secret? I have a twitchy urge to touch paintings like a five year old. I’ve never done it in a museum but I will admit to touching canvases in other situations. since touching’s not allowed, the next best thing to feeling the hardened oil paint or the tooth of the paper is finding pencil marks or initial sketches underneath the paint. I get chills.
sargent’s friend and biographer Evan Charteris wrote – ‘To live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held, with the luster of a bright and legible world, ‘the refluent shade’ and ‘the Ambient ardours of the noon.‘ yeah… what he said. go – go see these masterpieces. look at them closely to find the simple pencil lines and quick flicks of paint. stand back and admire his ability to paint ten shades of white without actually using white. the exhibit is here until january 20, 2014 and then moves on to houston.
thank you to Erica and the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for this incredible afternoon and thank you to Smita for organizing!
PS – I’ve added Erica’s book “Sargent’s Daughters” to my christmas list