Artist Profiles

Two-Minute Art History: John Singer Sargent and the Painterly Romance of Venice

Two-Minute Art History: John Singer Sargent and the Painterly Romance of Venice

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The Venetian canal comes alive with gondola-level perspective in this watercolor by John Singer Sargent

Best known for his bravura oil portraits, John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 – 1925) was equally accomplished as a watercolor painter. He often chose the medium for quick landscape studies on his travels, a practice that began when, as a child, he accompanied his parents on picturesque trips across Europe.

Art historian Barbara Dayer Gallati succinctly explained Sargent’s talent: “In essence, the secret of Sargent’s success as a watercolorist was his ability to achieve a rare and exquisite balance between painterly freedom and discipline, both of which could come only from years of looking and painting.”

Venetian Canal by John Singer Sargent (1913; watercolor and graphite on paper, 15¾x21)

Painting Serenissima

Sargent’s watercolor studies found their most brilliant expression in Venice, a city that by the late 19th century had become an immensely popular destination for artists. Sargent first visited Venice in the early 1880s, and made it a regular stop on his itinerary between 1898 and 1913.

He turned out watercolors like Venetian Canal with what appears to be customary effortlessness, delighting in the proximity of architecture and water seen under a limpid blue sky.

These visual travelogues were an escape from commissioned portraiture. People, when included at all, are distant presences denoted by a few flicks of the brush. Throughout Venetian Canal, one finds evidence of Sargent’s “exquisite balance between painterly freedom and discipline.”

The 6 Exceptional Parts of the Painting

#1 The viewpoint suggests that Sargent was seated in a gondola. He did, in fact, paint many of his Venetian watercolors from this unique vantage point.

#2 The artist laid in the sky with a blue wash, slightly lighter at the horizon. Its unadorned expanse is a clean counterpoint to the jumble of Venetian architecture and reflections.

#3 Sargent’s watercolors may seem improvised, but he often began them with a light pencil notation. One can see traces of the initial drawing of architectural elements, as in the contours of the distant church tower.

#4 For the buildings on the left, Sargent painted architectural details wet-on-dry for greater control and to create sharp edges where light and shadow interact. In the buildings on the right, Sargent painted the windows wet-into-wet, so the shapes bleed and read less distinctly within the shadows.

#5 In a passage just right of center, a series of crisp horizontal strokes indicate a slight disturbance of the water’s surface. Despite the apparent freedom of their application, the reflections correspond closely to the shapes and colors they reflect.

#6 Sargent understood linear perspective. The powerful diagonals on each side of the painting lead the eye to a stopping point: the church tower. In the middle distance, a bridge spans the canal and serves as an important compositional device.

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Article written by Jerry N. Weiss and was featured in Watercolor Artist magazine. Click here to get your subscription.

Weiss is a contributing writer for fine art magazines and teaches at the Art Students League of New York.

Watch the video: Artstop: John Singer Sargent (August 2022).