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John Singer Sargent watercolours bring a splash of summer colour to Dulwich

a watercolour sketch of a woman reclining by a stream

John Singer Sargent, A Turkish Woman by a Stream, c. 1907. Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by Miss Dorothy Barnard. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dulwich Picture Gallery lines up a sumptuous show of John Singer Sargent watercolours for summer 2017

Whether it was society ladies in dappled glades, exhausted soldiers resting in a farmer’s field or Turkish women reading by babbling brooks, John Singer Sargent imbued his watercolours with a sense of languid repose that was always his own.

The eminent painter whose elegant portraits cut a swathe through late Victorian and Edwardian society was an inveterate watercolourist and this glorious summer show has assembled some of his best.

Sargent: The Watercolours brings together nearly 80 works from arguably Sargent’s greatest period of watercolour production between 1900 and 1918, a period when he honed his technique during expeditions to Southern Europe and the Middle East, where he developed a distinctive way of seeing and composing.

A key selection of works from over 30 lenders, including The lady with the umbrella, 1911, on display in the UK for the first time, will offer what Dulwich Picture Gallery say is “an alternative perspective on Sargent”, demonstrating a technical brilliance and striking individuality.

a watercolour sketch of domed buildings seen through the rigging of boats on the water

John Singer Sargent, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, c. 1904-9 © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

a watercolour sketch of four soldiers in kilts resting on a mound of hay

Highlanders resting at the Front. Sargent, 1918. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

a colour sketch of a woman reclining beneath a white parasol

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911. Museu de Montserrat. Donated by J. Sala Ardiz. Image © Dani Rovira

a watercolour of a fountain with carved female figures

John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Bologna, c. 1906. Private Collection

Whilst these watercolours have often been dismissed as simple sketches or travel souvenirs, the Dulwich exhibition will show how they were an integral part of Sargent’s artistic production.

Sargent practiced the art of watercolour from a young age and continued to use it throughout his career, his style developing in tandem with his work in oils. By 1900, aged 44 and at the height of his career, he had grown restless and sought escape from the confines of his studio and the pressures of portrait commissions.

“We hope to demonstrate Sargent’s mastery of the medium and the scale of his achievement”.

Working en plein air he explored subjects of his own choosing, travelling to remote spots where he could work undisturbed. For this purpose he regularly turned to watercolour, a medium that allowed him to paint rapidly and without much preparation any scene that caught his eye.

Richard Ormond, co-curator of the exhibition, who is also the artist’s grand nephew, says Sargent’s watercolours reveal “his zest for life and his pleasure in the act of painting”.

“The fluency and sensuality of his paint surfaces, and his wonderful command of light, never cease to astonish us,” he adds. “With this exhibition we hope to demonstrate Sargent’s mastery of the medium and the scale of his achievement”.

That said, in his sketches of Spain and Italy there is a striking similarity to the photographic snapshot, and his landscapes, with their informal compositions and abrupt cropping, seem to capture a moment in time.

a colour sketchb of a golden globe with a figure on the top of a tower

John Singer Sargent, The Dogana, Statue of Fortune, c. 1909-11. Private collection.

a sketch of a series of classical pillars

John Singer Sargent, Villa Borghese, Temple of Diana, c. 1906-07. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Presented by Mrs Ormond, the artist’s sister, 1937. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

a colour sketch of a group of men in caps and red trousers resting on steps

John Singer Sargent, Group of Spanish Convalescent Soldiers, c. 1903, Private Collection

a black and white photo of a man with umbrellas and easel seated on a hillside

Unknown photographer, Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass, c. 1910-11, Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The show opens with some of the best examples of Sargent’s ‘fragments and close-ups’. He rarely painted buildings as complete and coherent entities and his sliced angles and perspectives and unorthodox viewpoints require the spectator to imagine their complete form.

In The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, c. 1904-1909, the domes of the great church are obscured by the rigging of ships in the canal so that they become part of a pictorial pattern.

His paintings of everyday life in Venice are often captured from canal level, with the city seen from the gondola perspective. Works also depict the less glamorous side canals, with their narrow passageways, their strange geometries and the mysterious play of light and shade.

Painting some of the most famous sites in other cities, Sargent chose to only give a glimpse of their grandeur, concentrating more on the pattern and form surrounding as in the earlier work, Constantinople, 1891, in which he depicted a strikingly horizontal view of the historic center of Istanbul.

Sargent: The Watercolours is at Dulwich Picture Gallery June 21 – October 8 2017

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Dulwich Picture Gallery

London, Greater London

Dulwich Picture Gallery, founded in 1811, was England's very first public gallery. The stunning collection houses masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, Gainsborough and Van Dyck amongst many others. The gallery also runs a world class exhibition programme. The entire collection of this gallery is a Designated Collection of national importance.

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