Watercolor Online




By Jim Salchak



“To live with Sargent’s watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held.” I did not really appreciate this statement written by Evan Charteris, Sargent’s friend and biographer, until I saw a group of them first hand.

I had made arrangements with the Museum of Fine arts in Boston to see ten of Sargent’s watercolors. When I walked into the room where they were set up I was nearly bowled over. They were so fresh and full of light; they looked like they were painted the day before instead of nearly 90 years before. I still marvel at Sargent’s ability to paint an illusion of reality while still making the final effect look like paint.

Early Years

Sargent was born in 1856 to American parents in Florence, Italy. Although he always considered himself an American, he lived in Europe his entire life making only extended visits to the United States to work and visit family and friends. He grew up speaking four languages, was widely read, played the piano expertly, and acquired a passion for art and architecture.

In 1874, at the age of eighteen, he was accepted as a student in the atelier of Carolous-Duran, a progressive portrait painter in Paris. Carolous-Duran taught an ala-prima approach to painting based on careful observation of tonal values. At the same time, Sargent enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study drawing.

Sargent quickly became the prize pupil in the atelier, gaining acceptance and even winning awards at the annual Paris Salon. This was an almost unheard of Achievement for someone so young. After three and one-half years of study, Sargent opened his own studio in Paris to pursue a career in portrait painting.

Building a Career

Sargent’s early years in Paris were promising. Portraits shown in the annual Salon received favorable reviews from the critics, which helped build his reputation as a young, talented modern painter. In Paris, Sargent painted portraits commissioned by American and French clients as well as several executed in England. During this period he took care not to pigeonhole himself as a specialist in portraits by exhibiting in the Salon subject pictures such as El Jaleo and portraits that were independent works of art rather than a mere likeness such as The Daughters of Edward Boit.

In 1883, Sargent asked to paint the portrait of M. Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), the wife of a wealthy Parisian banker. She was a “professional beauty” and he thought her portrait would attract attention at the Salon and bring in some portrait commissions. It had just the opposite effect when it was shown at the Salon of 1884. It was a shocker, the coloring, the low cut gown, and the haughty pose caused a scandal.

In 1886, with no prospects of making a career in Paris, Sargent closed his studio and moved to London. He soon moved into a studio on Tite Street that he would occupy until his death in 1925. James McNeill Whistler had previously occupied the Studio.

In England, faced with a shortage of portrait work, Sargent turned to landscape and genre painting. He spent the summers of 1885 through 1889 painting in plein air with a group of American and English painters in and around the Village of Broadway. This has been called Sargent’s impressionist years. Sargent became very familiar with the art of the Impressionists while living in Paris. He and Monet became friends and even painted in plein air together.

The greatest impact of impressionism on Sargent’s art was his use of color. He experimented with brighter, less black infected palettes and developed a special interest in the effects of light on color, and especially how various surfaces reflected and absorbed light. His interest in capturing the color of highlights, shadows, and reflections would be of paramount importance in his watercolors. Sometimes, the challenge of capturing a particular optical effect would be the only reason for doing a painting.

From 1887 to the end of the century, Sargent established his reputation as a portraitist first in the United States and then England. He became the most sought after portrait painter by aristocrats and would-be-aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic. To have your portrait done by Sargent meant you had arrived. By 1900, Sargent had become very wealthy and was overwhelmed with portrait work.

Beginning in 1890, Sargent also became deeply involved in a series of mural commissions for some of Boston’s public buildings that would that would take his time and energy for the remainder of his life. The first and probably most significant was the for the Boston Public Library, followed by the Museum of Fine Arts, and lastly, a commission for the library at Harvard University.

Travel and Watercolor

Although he grew up sketching in watercolor, Sargent did not give it any steady professional attention until he was in his mid-forties. Travel and his desire to paint in the open air greatly influenced his use of the medium.

In 1900, Sargent started taking long summer holidays that sometimes lasted three to four months. This was prompted in part by his desire to escape the pressure of his portrait work. On these holidays, his days were almost always filled with painting in both oil and watercolor. Soon, watercolor became his medium of choice because of its portability and its ability to directly capture the effects of light that clearly interested Sargent. These holidays became annual events until the outbreak of World War I. He would generally travel in the company of family members and friends, many of which were also artists.

Sargent usually went to locales where he could indulge his passion for plein air work. He favored regions that he visited during his childhood: the Alps, Italian Lake District, Venice and Spain. Through the years, Sargent would paint some of the same subjects over and over again: brooks and streams in the Alps; gardens with classic statuary; his traveling companions, sometimes in exotic costumes; fragments of architecture; ships, usually close-ups from a waterline point of view; and of course Venice, often painted from a gondola.

It has been speculated that it was his wish to travel that prompted his choice of a complex theme for the Boston Library murals, the History of Religion. Throughout this lengthy project (1890-1916) Sargent would incorporate into his travel plans, sites where he could view a variety of actual and artistic sources.

Richard Ormond, art historian, Sargent scholar and Sargent’s great-nephew wrote “He did not paint because he went abroad: he went abroad to paint.” Art historian’s agree that the virtuoso watercolor “snapshots” that Sargent created after 1900 are among his masterpieces and account for his reputation as one of the greatest American watercolorists.

Sargent Re-Invents Himself

The sustained importance of watercolor in Sargent’s work after 1900 was spurred by his growing dissatisfaction of portraiture. In 1903, Sargent began a process of self re-invention: to go from a painter of portraits to a painter of landscapes. He had never really given up landscapes. He simply did not have time for it due to the pressures of his portrait and mural work.

In 1903, Sargent allowed the Carfax Gallery in London to exhibit thirty of his landscape and figurative oils and five of his watercolors. None of the works were for sale. This was an exploratory exercise on Sargent’s part to gauge the public’s acceptance of his less formal work. In 1904 he exhibited five watercolors with the Royal Watercolor Society, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. In 1905, at another “loan” exhibition at the Carfax Gallery, Sargent exhibited forty-four watercolors and just three oils (including the infamous Madame X portrait, which Sargent kept in his possession until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1917). This exhibit resulted in a definitive change to his reputation by which he was seen as much as a watercolorist as a portraitist.

He won broad acclaim for his watercolors from the public and mainstream critics from that point on. There were some dissenters. Art critics favoring the new trends in art such as post-impressionism were very critical of Sargent’s work because of its naturalism. A third “loan” exhibit at the Carfax Gallery of forty-eight watercolors and two oils received equal praise when it opened in 1908.

In 1907, at the age of 51 and at the height of his career, Sargent retired from portrait painting and would do fewer than thirty during the last two decades of his life. At this point he poured his energies into his mural work and traveled extensively while always painting.

Sargent’s Watercolors in America

The first major showing of Sargent’s watercolors took place in the United States in 1909. Sargent and his friend Edward Boit had a joint exhibition of their watercolors at Knoedler and Company in New York City. Sargent’s name alone was enough to draw a crowd, but there was also great public interest in seeing his non-portrait work that had been so highly acclaimed by English audiences.

Newspapers called Sargent’s exhibition of eighty-six watercolors an “artistic sensation” and reported on the crowds visiting the gallery that included Winslow Homer. Sargent was persuaded to sell an enormous block of the watercolors (83 out of the 86 for $20,000) to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Knoedler held a second exhibition of Sargent and Boit watercolors in 1912. This time, all forty-five of Sargent’s watercolors went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Boston museum had wanted the watercolors purchased by the Brooklyn Museum of Art but did not act quickly enough. The Metropolitan Museum of Art followed in 1915 with the acquisition of ten watercolors purchased directly from and selected by Sargent. In 1917, the Worcester Art Museum acquired eleven watercolors that Sargent had painted that year on a trip to Florida.

In the year following Sargent’s death in 1925, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York put on major memorial exhibitions that included many his watercolors. This was the first time a wider public audience was given the opportunity to see the full breath of his work. Literally hundreds of watercolors were found in Sargent’s studio after his death. Some of which were auctioned off but many were donated by Sargent’s sisters to museums on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of the watercolors belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art were obtained in that manner.

Sargent’s Legacy

After his death, Sargent’s reputation declined rapidly. The world of modernism passed him by. For many decades, he was dismissed as just a society painter as the art world embraced Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and Abstraction. That attitude started to change in the mid 1950’s when Sargent’s work began to appear in exhibitions again and new scholarship revealed the complexity of the artist and his work.  His watercolors have received increased attention and have been praised by scholars and historians of the medium for their virtuosity and summary qualities.

Today, Sargent’s reputation and popularity with the public is at an all time high with last year’s major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, all drawing record crowds.

Sargent was the ultimate observer. With watercolor he was able to explore his immediate response free from detailed analysis. It offered him the means to refine and simplify his vocabulary; it was his shorthand. He recommended to his students at the Royal Academy School: “Cultivate an ever continuous stream of observations…test what you remember…mental notes…make them again and again…the power of selection will follow…above all things get abroad, see the sunlight, and everything that is to be seen…”

Above all else, Sargent was a painter. It was his obsession and he was a prodigious worker. In addition to his murals, he painted nearly six hundred formal portraits in oil and over 1500 landscape and genre paintings in oil and watercolor. The Epitaph on his tombstone, “To Work is to Pray,” refers to his compulsion for work.

For those of us who are still inspired by his watercolors Charteris’ statement: “to live with Sargent’s watercolors is to live with sunshine captured and held” is still true today.



About the Author

Jim Salchak has been captivated by the medium of watercolor for over twenty-five years. His paintings have been shown in numerous local and national juried exhibitions, including the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society and Watercolor West. A signature member and past president of the National Watercolor Society, Jim is the current President of Watercolor West. His paintings have been published in the Best of Watercolor, People in Watercolor and Watercolor Expressions.
His interest in the watercolors of John Singer Sargent is a result of his study of the masters of the medium. Jim presents a lecture illustrated with 90 slides on the Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, which he has given to a number of art organizations. Organizations wishing to schedule a lecture can contact him by writing to 18220 S. Hoffman Ave., Cerritos, CA 90703; or by e-mail: salchak@msn.com; or by telephone at: 562-925-7722.


Selected Bibliography


Adelson, Warren, et al. Sargent Abroad, Figures and Landscapes. New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.

Adelson, Warren, et al. Sargent at Broadway, The Impressionist Years. New York: Universe / Coe Kerr Gallery, 1986.

Charteris, Evan. John Sargent. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1927.

Fairbrother, Trevor. John Singer Sargent, The Sensualist. Seattle Art Museum / Yale University Press, 2000.

Ferber, Linda S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati. Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement. Washington: The Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Smithsonian Institution press, 1998.

Finch, Christopher. American Watercolors. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.

Herdrich, Stephanie L. and H. Barbara Weinberg. American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art-John Singer Sargent. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Hills, Patricia, et al. John Singer Sargent. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1986.

Hoopes, Donelson F. Sargent Watercolors. New York: Watson Guptil, 1970.

Kilmurray, Elaine and Richard Ormond. John Singer Sargent. Princeton University Press, 1998.

Little, Carl. The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent. University of California Press, 1999.

Olson, Stanley. John Singer Sargent: His Portrait. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Ormond, Richard. John Singer Sargent. Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Ratcliff, Carter. John Singer Sargent. New York: Abbeville Press, 1982.

Strickler, Susan E. American Traditions in Watercolor: The Worcester Art Museum Collection. New York: Abbeville Press / Worcester Art Museum, 1987.

Back to the Articles and Tutorials main page.