Scuola di San Rocco (c.1902-04) by John Singer Sargent
In my opinion (for what it matters), “Art” is the accomplished manipulation of a medium. Some artists manipulate paint, others marble; some artists will manipulate words, while others manipulate vocal notes. Great artists—by definition—are great at doing it. On Sunday I witnessed a Master’s Class worth of Great Art.
I had intended to see the John Singer Sargent Watercolors exhibit (at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) weeks ago. Fortunately, I made it to the exhibition on its final day. Four glorious rooms of his watercolors (with a handful of oil paintings thrown-in for good measure). It was an absolute treasure trove of his work–work which was never really intended for the viewing public.
In the early Twentieth Century, Sargent (an already highly-regarded and highly-paid portraitist) travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. During these travels, he recorded his observations—of people, landscapes, the play of light on stone—in watercolor. These paintings were pure indulgence, created solely for his own enjoyment, strictly for his own collection. Freed from the need to please a rich (and picky) Society Patron(ess) Sitter/Subject, Sargent experimented with unusual angles, unconventional subjects, and lots of color. These watercolors reflect a man liberated from other’s expectations. Upon returning to the States, Sargent was encouraged to show (and, possibly, sell) these works. He exhibited the collection at Knoedler & Co., one of New York’s smartest galleries. The entire collection was purchased, en masse, by the Brooklyn Museum for $20,000. Lucky for them. Lucky for us!
So, let’s get back to Great Art. Sargent’s watercolors impress me for the same reasons his oil paintings do: great confidence displayed in his brushwork, the ability to portray much complexity with such economy, and his understanding of light and how to capture it on paper or canvas. John Singer Sargent was a master of portraying his subject—yes—but, furthermore, he portrayed (brilliantly!) the essence of that person, place or thing.
My definition of Art may displease some who have spent their lives in Artistic Academia. But if Art is “the accomplished manipulation of a medium,” John Singer Sargent is amongst the Greatest of Artists. And my favorite American artist.