What do we think of Sargent? A turn of the century court painter pandering to rich guys wives with languid eyes flopped out on sumptuous devons? Shall we toss Sargent in the art-closet with Bouguereau and Fragonard?
Well, yes and no. A tough call, as the stunning collection recently shown at the Brooklyn Museum, now traveling to Boston shows us. It just has very little to do with how we look at work now. There are little if any traces of modernism. Even though some of the Venetian buildings were scrappy, they are antique and from the old world. Milton Avery, Charles Sheeler and others were painting modern down trodden, industrial buildings, hard as nails railroad tracks that somehow look modern to us. Even if Sargent is more skilled with a brush, it's the subjects that sometimes draw the life out of a room. One of his best is a simple portrait of a tramp.
A painting can be beautiful and well done, but it needs to make some sort of connection with the audience. Now, we aren’t saying that every piece of art has to be a working stiff in a garage. Take a look at Munch’s The Scream, from basically the same time period. It is a painting we can relate to in the modern day; the fear and raw emotion is something everybody experiences.
On the other hand, watercolor at this level is a lost art. Some of the duck stamp crowd or western nostalgia artists might come close. But now, for the most part, it's a skill like making Meissen china. Gone. These almost seem like Ralph Lauren ads for the Victorian set.
The research is phenomenal. Our friend Toni Owen, Senior Paper Conservator, graciously led us through the show. There are many charts and photos showing color field x-ray analysis of what particular pignments went where. Cobalts here show as reds and the ultramarines come up as white. Tiny differences that make boats float in canals and rocks sizzle in the desert sun. Sargent is a master at this without parallel. All said, it's a portrait of a time. A documentation of a way of life when people took steamers and the Orient Express. These pieces are almost like a medieval tapestry show; skills that are in a historic vein rather than modern art.
He's a difficult guy as he made a ton of money. Museums bought entire watercolor shows out from the gallery. He did quite well, thank you. But you wish you could go back, grab him by the collar and say look, look at this Van Gogh!
Enough Arabs, society swells and Venetian scenes. Put your brush in your left hand, turn the canvas upside down and cut loose.