Saturday, 22 July 2017

'Sargent: The Watercolours' at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Yesterday morning I hopped on a bus to see the new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of watercolours by John Singer Sargent. It was a bright, sunny morning, just right for seeing some never-before seen watercolours of bright sunny places. I'm not a huge fan of Sargent's but I was impressed by his portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago and enjoyed the ballet based on the story behind his portrait, 'Madame X', performed by the Royal Ballet. So why not try his watercolours?

I know some artists treat watercolour as one of their main media but I always think of watercolours as sketches, a quick dab here with a brush and a stroke there creating an image quickly. Of course, some paintings are more complex than others and Sargent seems to have taken both approaches. There are lots of paintings of Venice and the sea and lagoons, of buildings, landscapes and people. I really liked seeing the dappled light on water and, on closer inspection, you can see that some of the effect is due to not painting parts of the page, leaving gaps, and that's just as important and what you colour in. It gives a great effect of movement.

I wasn't too bothered by his paintings of buildings or, rather, details of buildings. He rarely painted a whole building but seemed to 'crop' the view to focus on this colonade or that doorway or window. A couple of them took me back to the NPG exhibition and thinking that some of the watercolours were similar in style to the situations he placed people in in his portraits. Was he using these watercolours to help him imagine his bigger portraits and play around with the compositions? I wonder.

One of my favourite paintings was this one of his sister painting on one of their Continental painting holidays, with his sister sitting in front of the easel with a brush in her mouth. It looks really naturalistic - why wouldn't you temporarily hold a brush in your mouth while you're adding a wash or a detail? I'd be happy to have that on living room wall any day.

Another favourite was this painting of one of his nieces lying on the ground under her parasol, awash with the volume of frocks a well brought-up late Victorian or Edwardian young lady should wear.  The frivolous side of me wondered how on earth the maids would get the grass stains out of that white dress after lying on the ground, but I'm sure they had ways of doing this. It also made me think of another painting earlier in the exhibition of a tarpaulin covering a boat being repaired in Venice or somewhere, the expanse of white carefully shaded here and there in all sorts of colours reflected from the sun and surrounding buildings and trees.

The face is more of a sketch of features than a portrait but it works very well in context. This painting is, quite rightly, the poster for the exhibition and the cover for the catalogue.

The final room turns to watercolours of people and the last few paintings are of soldiers (when he was a war artists at the end of the First World War) and male nudes. It probably shows my lack of knowledge of Sargent that I didn't know he painted male nudes but he seems to have done a lot. The one I'm choosing to highlight is this painting of a young man on a bed who's come back from the beach or sunbathing and is just lying there naked. His sun tan lines are clear from the singlet marks on his chest and shoulders to the tops of his thighs from his trunks. He's had a hard day sunbathing or swimming and he's now relaxing back at the hotel with a cigarette on the bed. What a natural scene, the white bedclothes set off the brown wooden bedstead and table and the tan of the man's body.

It's a really nice exhibition and perfect for a sunny summer's day. We went in shortly after 10am on a Friday morning when the Gallery opened and it was already relatively crowded. That's a good indication of its popularity. I wouldn't say it was a great exhibition full of eye opening materials but it's well worth visiting - painting wasn't just Sargent's 'job', it was also his 'hobby'. The exhibition is on until October so you've got plenty of time to pop along and see it.

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