Just before the show came down this past weekend, I visited the exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (which previously showed at the Brooklyn Museum). I know that work pretty well—not expert-well, but well enough, thanks to time I spent at the MFA writing and editing catalogue copy about Sargent’s work. But the gallery devoted to pictures of gardens snuck up on me, leaving me shattered and moved—by Sargent’s struggle with foliage, of all things!
Sargent, Port of Soller (1908).
Throughout his work in watercolors, Sargent moved through a kind of careful pictorial impressionism towards abstract gestures; the effects of water especially he allows himself to depict almost semaphorically or pictographically. But the uncanny liveliness of foliage really seems to have thrown him. Trees are shifting, evanescent things, at once enduring and ephemeral, and they seem to have left Sargent productively unsettled. He uses blobs of watercolor straight from the tube to catch eruptions and showers of color amidst foliage, which blurs into indistinctiveness in ways that go beyond the mere suggestion of movement (although they show the influence of turn-of-the-century photography). a collage of drips, washes, and the abraded voids, Sargent’s foliage evokes the hectic career of light passing not only over the surfaces of trees, but into and out of their tissues.
I was struck, too, by how distinct the trees seemed from Sargent’s human figures, who often are rather swaddled by the world, caught up in folds of fabric, textures of buildings, and muscular swellings of soil and turf. Many of his people in watercolors feel squeezed and held in the fist of the world… the trees, by contrast, feel flayed and naked, exposed to light and air, standing forth like bodies without interiors or organs, fragile—and yet entirely unapologetic in their exposure to the world.