John Singer SargentAmerican (active London, Florence, and Paris), 1856 - 1925
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One of the most sought-after portrait artists of his day, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) grew weary of painting faces. About 1900 he began an annual rhythm of work that would gradually shift his energy--and draw his patrons--into other directions. Typically, he stayed in London from November to June, teaching or working on portraits and murals, and then devoted the summer and early fall to travel and landscape painting. More than just an alternation of work and holiday, it was a regimen of studio projects refreshed by a different, but equally disciplined, kind of study outdoors.
In his flight from portraiture, Sargent renewed a passion that had burned brightly in the mid-1880s, when he worked alongside Claude Monet in France and with American colleagues in rural England. Mastering the techniques of Impressionism, he applied his skill in capturing effects of color and light to his portraits, but his return to landscape painting after 1900 brought his talents as a plein air painter to new levels of virtuosity.
Summer travel also happily retraced the routes that Sargent had known as a child, ranging around Europe with his expatriate American parents. As an adult, he would gather up his sisters and friends into a company that posed for his pictures or worked alongside him, supplying convivial support to his athletic pursuit of light and shadow. The mountains linking Switzerland, Italy, and France drew his troupe repeatedly, offering cool and exhilarating summer pastures. First sketching the Alps as a teenager in 1870, he rediscovered the mountains in 1900 and enjoyed annual visits from 1904 to 1909 to the green hillsides and riverbanks of the Val Veny and the Val d'Aosta. Seeking a different topography, Sargent and his company pushed on in the summer of 1909 to the higher, treeless terrain of the Simplon Pass, where he launched a series of more panoramic views. Enthralled by bright skies and rough landscapes of glaring rock, Sargent returned again in the summer of 1910, when he produced a sheaf of watercolors and a collection of major oils, probably including the undated canvas A Waterfall.1
The impact of the painting-at once atmospheric from a distance and thrillingly tactile from up close-followed the strategy of his friend Monet's late works. Like Monet, Sargent worked both outdoors and indoors, where larger canvases were more easily managed. Looking from the Impressionist vitality of the watercolor, surely painted on the spot, to the forcefulness of the oil, it might be conjectured that the oil derived its naturalism from the watercolor and plein air observation, and its power from reconsideration in the studio. In his skillfulness, Sargent made his process almost impossible to sort out: the American painter Manierre Dawson, who watched Sargent work outdoors in Italy in September 1910, commented on his ability to veil the careful construction of his paintings with "a look of spontaneous dash" added at the last, supplying a convincing look of outdoor authenticity and ease.2
Sargent's sense of the painting's importance as a more studied and monumental work can be read in its strategic debut. Since 1903 he had been sending his landscapes to the more progressive and informal exhibition venues in London; finally, in 1910, he submitted his first landscape to the Royal Academy of Art's annual exhibition, where he had previously shown only portraits and figures. The triumph of the spectacular Glacier Streams: The Simplon (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts) must have encouraged him to send A Waterfall the following spring in 1911, along with a portrait, an architectural subject, and one of the Boston mural panels, Armageddon. His selection demonstrated the success of his intent to broaden his reputation. Critics applauded the Alpine painting as "a sincere and brilliant experiment" and described Sargent as "a landscape artist of the first rank."3
American admirers agreed. Purchased almost immediately by an American collector, A Waterfall became the first major landscape by Sargent to be widely exhibited in the United States. Following the extraordinary purchase of eighty-three watercolors by the Brooklyn Museum in 1909, the appearance of A Waterfall at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design in New York late in 1913 and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1914 accompanied a general scramble by American museums and collectors for Sargent's landscapes and watercolors.4 The critic in the New York Times acknowledged A Waterfall as masterful and a model to other artists; the writer in Philadelphia's Public Ledger noted two examples of "the sublimity of genius" in the Academy's show: Thomas Eakins's Agnew Clinic and Sargent's majestic landscape.5
Sargent rarely offered any interpretative commentary on his landscapes, and A Waterfall may be best understood simply in visual terms, as an impression of a sparkling view, artistically organized by a virtuoso in paint. In the context of his other work in 1910, it can be seen as a holiday from the complex figure compositions for his Boston murals, The Triumph of Religion. At the Royal Academy, A Waterfall appeared with the tormented Armageddon, depicting the fall of "Gog and Magog" in the great battle before Judgment Day. Both paintings may have been completed in London over the winter of 1910-11, and certainly the mural panel had been under way since at least 1909. Side by side, the two subjects demonstrate the range of Sargent's ambitions at this time and the refreshment gained from contrasting efforts. However, his later, jesting references to his "Alpine nightmare" landscapes from the Simplon may indicate that visions of Armageddon continued to roil in Sargent's mind as he painted stony landscapes at the top of the world.6
Kathleen A. Foster, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 254-257.
2. Dawson's journal, September 26, 1910, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; quoted in ibid., p. 271. Photos of Sargent at work outdoors show him working on smaller canvases or watercolor blocks, although he traveled well equipped and assisted, and stayed in hotels close to his sketching grounds. Other artists reported his working on four-foot canvases outdoors; see Richard Ormond, in Sargent and Italy, ed. Bruce Robertson (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2003), p. 125.
3. "The Royal Academy: Third Notice, Landscape," Times (London), May 8, 1911, p. 10; and Studio, cited in William Howe Downes, John S. Sargent, His Life and Work (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1925), p. 238. A less cordial reviewer described the painting as "vividly literal but undistinguished"; see "Fine Arts and the Royal Academy (First Notice)," Atheneum, no. 4357 (April 29, 1911), p. 483.
4. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquired a group of watercolors in 1912, as did the Metropolitan Museum in 1915, and the Worcester Art Museum in 1917, while the artist's dealer, Knoedler's, sold many oils in the period 1912-15. Elizabeth Oustinoff, "The Critical Response," in Adelson et al., Sargent Abroad, pp. 228-29.
5. "Prize Pictures in Academy's Exhibit," New York Times, December 20, 1913, p. 12; and "Academy Opens 109th Exhibition," Public Ledger, February 8, 1914, p. 11.
6. See Hilliard T. Goldfarb, "Sargent in Pursuit of Landscapes, in His Own Words: 'I am off again to try the simple life (ach pfui),'" in Goldfarb, Hirshler, and Jackson, Sargent, p. 103.