|In a Medici Villa, 1906.|
While the paintings here encompass a broad range of places and topics, Sargent's techniques and virtuoso brushwork are a constant; as is his interest in the optical effects of bright sunshine----as the show's accompanying wall text notes. The refracted light on water; the glare of sunshine on stone or stucco, light filtered through leaves or sailcloth----that is the real subject of his paintings, not the harbors, streams or architectural elements that make up his compositions. "In a Medici Villa" is a good example: The focus is on the optical effect of intense sunlight on the fountain's basins while the statuary has been left undefined and the statues atop have been omitted from the composition altogether. The show's accompanying text also notes Sargent's tendency to present only a partial view of his ostensible subjects; noting that his watercolors present a view of things as one might visually experience them in real life, rather than trying to replicate entire buildings, fountains, gardens, etc. in detail: Like the Impressionists', his compositions show the influence photography had on artists.
|Santa Maria della Salute, 1904.|
|White Ships, circa 1908.|
It has been pointed out by various Sargent critics that many of his paintings strike a distinctly Romantic note with the frequent depiction of Renaissance architectural elements, including buildings, courtyards gardens, fountains and statuary. It has been suggested that Sargent viewed the Renaissance as representing an artistic and cultural ideal. That his Renaissance motifs express a nostalgia for some bygone (idyllic) era. Unfortunately, from a contemporary sensibility much of the statuary depicted in Sargent's paintings seem more campy and kitsch than ideal (as do the originals). I suspect Sargent may have viewed them----based as they are on mythological subject matter----as inspirational and uplifting. Instead, they seem schmaltzy. The sentimental Romanticism of those paintings make Sargent seem somewhat anachronistic, at variance with the dominant artistic movements of his time. Not only the Cubism and whatever of the early twentieth century, but even out of step with the earlier Impressionist movement as well.
Additionally, the Romanticism seems incongruous with Sargent's own watercolor painting style. The informality of the compositions; the perfunctory treatment of figures: Sargent's background/mid-ground figures are barely more than a brushstroke or two, if that; his foreground figures are painted in the same cursory brushwork as their surroundings. Stylistically he was as much a Realist as the Impressionists. And it can be argued----and this exhibition goes along way toward making the case----Sargent's only real subject matter is sunlight: With all the brilliant optical effects that can occur when natural light is refracted on everything from fabric, stone, water and leaves. And I don't think any painter has ever captured the dazzling effect of sunlight quite like Sargent, whether it is dancing across water and reflected on a ship prow or fountain basin, or illuminating the surface of buildings, courtyards, colonnades or, yes, statuary.
The show continues until July 28, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.