Though John Singer Sargent is considered one of the most talented Americans to ever wield a paintbrush, until now there has never been a Sargent exhibit on the West Coast. Now that omission has remedied in spectacular fashion by the Seattle Art Museum, where a major Sargent retrospective has just opened. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Towards the beginning of this landmark Sargent exhibit, there is a modest-sized painting of a gloomy Venetian interior, rendered in blacks, pinks and greys. Here and there are dimly lit figures, some nearly faceless, several engaged in stringing beads. At the far end of the room there is a tiny bright doorway. But what rivets the eye is not the people, nor the door, but a radioactive bolt of light, a single yellowish paint stroke midway back that races across the floor and up the wall, electrifying the otherwise muted scene.
It’s just a piece of paint, but what a piece of paint! Mere pigment and oil, probably laid down in an instant — real sunlight never looked so good. Moments of such painterly alchemy occur again and again in this utterly seductive exhibit of the work of John Singer Sargent — there’s a showstopper around nearly every corner. This is the realm of painterly realism, where brushstrokes hold their own identity while at the same time morphing into boldly naturalistic forms — like hands and faces, fabrics and fountains. Originally explored by artists like Franz Hals and Diego Velazquez, this dashing style enjoyed an explosion of popularity in Europe in the late 19th Century. The American expatriate Sargent was one of its leading champions.
Like any virtuoso performance, the showy painting of Sargent relies on a bedrock of hard-won technical skills. That’s the point Curator Trevor Fairbrother makes by his unusual choice of starting the show with a large selection of Sargent’s drawings. The workaholic Sargent produced thousands of such sketches during his long career, depicting everything from motorcycles to mountains.
Throughout this large, comprehensive show, we see examples of Sargent’s trademark combination of close observation with dramatic effects — drama of light, of color, of personality. Nothing he chooses to depict ends up appearing ordinary — everything is transformed in some way. Two examples from a trip to the Canadian Rockies hang side by side. In one painting, an oil sketch of a ragged campsite is energized by the gorgeous blue glow of campfire smoke. In the companion painting, Sargent uses watercolor to nail the effect of sunlight pouring through the roof of a canvas tent.
The centerpiece of the show is a dark green room hung with prime examples of the full-figure society portraits which made Sargent’s reputation. In these twelve paintings of various members of the British Wertheimer family, strong personalities inhabit equally strong compositions. Faces are recorded with an almost tender touch, while fabrics and furnishings are materialized out of the dark backgrounds with the deft, slashing strokes of an artistic matador. Two standout portraits — the one of patriarch Asher gesturing with his cigar, the other of elegant daughters Edna and Betty arm in arm — are justly among the artist’s most famous. They confer on their subjects the kind of immortality even one’s name on a building cannot match.
Also of great interest is a set of thirty robust male nudes, charcoal drawings with the appearance of having been virtually thought onto the page. Their unflinching celebration of male virility is not your usual museum fare, and perhaps partly for this reason most have never before been exhibited.
Up until very recently, Sargent had fallen through the cracks of modern art history. 20th century art critics often celebrated artists who they considered innovators, suffering geniuses, or both, and Sargent became a footnote to painters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, and the Impressionists. Recent years have seen something of a Sargent revival. Now departing curator Fairbrother offers his contribution, one of the most ambitious and rewarding shows that SAM has mounted in years, and one which will delight the hordes of visitors who will surely flock to the museum until the exhibit closes its doors next March.