Sargent: the Watercolours

An exhibition in Dulwich gives a seldom seen view of a painter relaxing, writes John Westbrooke

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John Singer Sargent was the most famous portraitist of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. He painted grand society ladies, presidents, literary figures – some of his work was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. His portrait of Madame X caused a scandal in 1884: not only was she imperiously looking away from the painter, she wore a low-cut dress with a shoulder strap hanging loose. (He put it back up again when she protested, but her reputation was ruined; she abandoned public life and destroyed all the mirrors in her house.)

Then in the early 1900s, evidently weary of “Sargentolatry”, he gave it all up. A new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in its bicentenary year shows what happened next: abandoning the high life of oils, he turned to the immediacy of watercolours instead.

He’d been there before, when young. Born to American expatriates in Italy, he spent his youth wandering Europe with his family. His mother recognised his artistic talent, and he trained in Florence and Paris, producing some watercolour work among the oils.

Now, free from the burden of portrait commissions, he travelled regularly in Europe once more, often with family. He went to places that still draw tourists: the Alps, the Alhambra, and in particular Venice, which he loved and visited nearly every year until war broke out in 1914.

But his approach changed sharply. A typical day would see him in a gondola with his paints, looking up from water level, not at landscapes but at little details of hulls or sails from odd angles. Some people compare the results with Impressionism, the French movement already 40 years old, but they seem more modern than that: though Impressionists too worked in the open air, they produced finished works, whereas Sargent’s glory in their sketchiness.

In Palma, Majorca, you can pick out the boats on the water easily enough but you might not guess the striped orange shape in the background is a cathedral. He does no more than outline the heads of the sculptures in Spanish Fountain, he’s more interested in the sun on the water and its reflection on the underside of the bowl. The Fountain, Bologna features a statue of Neptune by Giambologna – but not for Sargent, who shows only the base.

A Glacier Stream in the Alps has more water, but is chiefly about grey boulders and the artist in grey painting them, all offset by dark blue distant mountains: freely drawn it may be, but it’s clearly structured, horizontals and diagonals, dark and light. In others, such as San Vigilio and The Dead Sea, the form is almost dissolved in the light; you need to read the captions to see what they are.

Strikingly, though, the work the gallery has put on its posters is The Lady with the Umbrella, from 1911 – a portrait of his niece Rose-Marie, shown for the first time in the UK. She’s not upright and rigid like Madame X, she’s lying languidly in the sun, with white clothes and a white parasol and looking directly at the viewer. It would be fairer to say whitish, because the painter has worked quickly in greys, pinks and creams. But it’s a proper portrait none the less, and you can see the hand of the man who’d been hailed as the modern Van Dyck, even while he was breaking free from his old specialty.

The Great War brought an end to his European breaks. In 1918 he was sent to the western front as a war artist by the British Ministry of Information. Highlanders Resting at the Front shows soldiers basking in the sun; if there was a war on, you’d hardly know it, they look as relaxed as the lady with the umbrella. Considering she too died in the war, shelled while nursing French soldiers in a church, there’s an odd lack of foreboding about the picture.

But he didn’t paint the dark side much. In his oils he often gave his sitters an air of aloof mystery as well as glamour, but they’re seldom seductive.

Here, unexpectedly, the greatest apparent warmth is in a handful of male nudes at the end of the exhibition. His own sexuality remains another mystery – one contemporary described him as a “frenzied bugger”, others said he had relationship with females – so we needn’t conclude that he was lusting after his subjects. All we can say is that watercolour freed him up to paint for pleasure, and this is a rare opportunity to see the sunny results.

Sargent: the Watercolours is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, south London, until 8 October 2017. Adults £15.50 including voluntary donation; discounts available.