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Volume 29, Number 4July/August 1978

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The Unknown Sargents

Written by Joy Wilson

Deep in the vaults of New York's Brooklyn and Metropolitan Museums, the curators have carefully stored two small collections of fragile watercolors that the public rarely sees and that many people have never heard of: John Singer Sargent's sketches and paintings of the Middle East.

The reason, of course, is that the fame of this expatriate American artist rest on his fashionable portraits of British nobility, Boston Brahmins, American financiers and other luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet Sargent, despite his phenomenal success as a portrait painter, also produced an astonishing number of sketches and paintings of the Middle East: Egypt, Palestine, today's Syria and Lebanon and the nearby deserts.

Curiously, that aspect of Sargent's career developed out of his success as a portrait painter. Restless and discontented despite his fame, he began to seek more creative styles and subjects and, in 1890, accepted a commission to paint decorative murals for the Boston Public Library; like many of his contemporaries he saw murals as the highest form of art. It was, in any case, a new artistic challenge, one that engaged his attention for the next 26 years. It also led him to Egypt in 1890, to the Holy Land in 1905 and, eventually, to a series of works that trace the development of western religious thought from paganism through Judaism, to Christianity.

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, to an expatriate American family that wandered through Europe on a perpetual grand tour. As the family moved from country to country young John, already exhibiting a natural talent, began to record their travels in sketches and to study, on his own, the works of the great masters in Europe's museums. As Sargent's mother dabbled in art and music herself, she encouraged the apparently talented boy in such endeavors. Later he studied art informally in Rome and Florence and then, at 18, enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and in the studio of the noted academic portraitist Carolus-Duran.

The year was 1874 - the very year that the Impressionists banded together to display their avant-garde paintings in Paris. Sargent, as it happened, was unaware of the Impressionists and of the upheaval their rebellion was causing. But impressionism, nevertheless, was to affect his painting. After a quarter of a century of shifting between the two opposing approaches to art, he eventually and unmistakably began to incorporate the Impressionists' treatment of light in his own work.

In the meantime, however, Sargent's own conventional talents had catapulted him into the top ranks of conventional art. When Sargent was only 21, his first picture was accepted at the Salon and the following year his Oyster Gatherers of Cancale won a second class medal. Although he suffered a serious setback almost immediately - when Paris art critics assailed what was then considered shocking decolletage in his Madame Gautreau - he recovered quickly too. Within a year he had moved to London, where the American novelist Henry James and the flamboyant patron of the arts, Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner, opened the doors to London's more fashionable circles. By 1888 his reputation as a portrait painter was firmly established both in England and in the United States.

In that period, Sargent travelled frequently to the United States but, as he found England and the Continent more artistically stimulating, continued to reside in London where, during the winters, he concentrated on portraits. These, the works that made him famous, were painted in his own traditional style - developed partly from his work with Duran and from a close study of atmosphere and brush work of Frans Hals and Velasquez. In the summer months, however, Sargent travelled to southern Europe, the Alps, or North Africa. And there, stimulated by the intense sunlight playing upon church facades, fountains, Moorish courtyards and jagged mountains, he experimented with bold strokes in a fluid bravura style and, eventually, began to incorporate some impressionist techniques. Despite his conventional background, Sargent was drawn to the Impressionists' treatment of light, particularly as handled by his friend Claude Monet. These summer travels, which provided new scenes and exotic faces, were apparently a welcome relief from the constraints of commissioned portraits. But they were also, as it turned out, preparation for Sargent's commission in 1890 to do the murals for the Boston Public Library.

Receiving that commission delighted Sargent, and he threw himself into the project with enthusiasm. Immediately upon accepting the commission, he set off for Egypt to study the ancient pharaonic world of temples, tombs and sculpture. During a busy month there, he sketched figures and designs from the monuments in Cairo, Luxor, Philae and Fayyum. These sketches were incorporated later in the library's north-wall mural, actually a huge canvas symbolizing the Israelite captivity in Egypt. In addition, Sargent, during his Egyptian travels, painted landscapes and portraits: Indigo Dyers, Sunset Over Cairo, Water Carriers on the Nile and Temple of Denerah, few of which are, unfortunately, readily available to the public today. Some are unaccounted for, others are privately owned and a few, from the Metropolitan's collection of 11 paintings, are on loan to government agencies. One portrait, for example, Egyptian Women, is currently part of an exhibition of American painting in Moscow.

Between 1890 and 1905, Sargent worked diligently on the Boston murals. But by 1905 he was seeking "new fuel for the murals" and so embarked for the Holy Land. Because few of his letters survive, many details of the trip are unknown, but his sketch books, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum, provide a fine record. He disembarked in Palestine, visited Tiberius on the shores of Galilee and such other famous sites as Jericho and Jerusalem, and went as far north as Tripoli and Baalbek in today's Lebanon. During this time he worked on water-colors as well as sketches for the Boston murals, turning out a series of charming, fluid watercolors such as Ruined Temple, the Roman temple of Jupiter at Baalbek.

From some of the letters that have survived, it is clear that Sargent was disappointed with the biblical and historical monuments. As he wrote to a friend in England: "Some new material I have secured but it is different from what I had in view and not abundant - no miraculous drought but I shall fish here for a while and try to bring back some weightier stuff than lots of impossible sketches and perhaps useless studies."

As he did. Turning to the desert, he joined a Bedouin tribe, travelled and lived with the tribe and produced a series of watercolors that record in a bold, vibrant and fluid style vignettes of desert life: meals over the open fire, black tents with mysterious interiors, fiery desert sunsets, handsome Arabian horses and barren parched lands. By juxtaposing large patches of colored wash with bold colors and combining them with selected details, often abstracted at the edges of the painting, Sargent offered convincing scenes executed with consummate skill and bravura. He captured, moreover, the immutable quality of desert life and the personal strength that develops from coping with a harsh environment. The striking portrait Bedouins is a good example. A vivid watercolor of two desert men dressed in thobes and wearing bandoliers, this painting, like all his desert watercolors, explores the optical transformation of the actual colors into very intense colors under the angled desert sun. He paints, for example, the normally somber, monochromatic thobes in the brightest cobalt blue - a form of impressionism - but renders the faces in detail to achieve, finally, a realistic portrait with poetic overtones.

Another painting from this trip is the Hills of Galilee, with distant hills in orange and lavender, recently tilled farmland in a bright, burnt red and a misty farmer and his ox, at once impressionistic and realistic. And a third is the Arab Stable, a unique work which led Sargent, in a letter to Mrs. Gardner, to explain the unrealistic touch of cobalt blue on the hindquarters of a horse: "They ought to have blue ribands plaited into their tails and manes, like Herod's horses in Flaubert's beautiful Herodiade." Since there are areas in the painting left undefined which disintegrate into abstraction, Sargent called this "a watercolor sketch."

To those paintings Sargent also added hundreds of small sketches, charming snapshot pieces sometimes done with quick minimal lines, other times in surprising detail; the sketch called Syrian Arab is a good example. He also, enroute to London after he learned of his mother's death, added two charming watercolors: Melon Boats and In a Levantine Port. Altogether these Middle Eastern works display Sargent's finest moments and talents.

In retrospect, Sargent's search for "new fuel" for his murals was unsuccessful. As, eventually, were the murals themselves. Sargent himself saw those murals - and others commissioned for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Widener Library at Harvard University - as the culmination of his training and background. But after his death, public interest in murals waned as tastes changed and more impressionistic art forms came into vogue. On the other hand, the second Middle East trip also marked, and possibly brought about, a turning point in Sargent's career. Not long after his return, he began to devote most of his time, when not working on the murals, to freer, more impressionist watercolors. And in 1908 he sold 83 watercolors to the Brooklyn Museum, the largest body of his watercolors ever sold until then. He still did an occasional portrait, such as those of John D. Rockefeller and President Wilson, but generally, in his last years, he tended to paint only close friends or, to keep his fashionable clientele happy, dash off a quick charcoal sketch. And when he died, in 1925, his studio was filled not only with portraits, but with watercolors, many of them of the Middle East and its endlessly fascinating people.

Joy Wilson studied at Radcliffe, taught science in a high school and later lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years. She is now studying for her M.A. degree at the University of Connecticut.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the July/August 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1978 images.