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or Educational Gallery

Room 3-04

Both images shown and the curatorial comments transcribed,
are from the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, at the URL:

John Singer Sargent

Gondoliers Siesta (1905), watercolor.
Margaret and Raymond Horowitz Collection
Copyright © 1999 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

John Singer Sargent painted watercolors most of his life, but until about 1900 he did so only fitfully and, as he said, to "make the best of an emergency."1 By about 1900 Sargent had tired
of formal portraiture. "No more paughtraits," he wrote his friend Ralph Curtis. "I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes."2 He could never give up portraiture entirely, despite his hope, but he did, as Richard Ormond has nicely put, go "off duty"3 to paint other subjects and work in other mediums.

Of those subjects, Venice was his favorite, and watercolor was the medium he favored to paint it. Sargent had visited Venice before 1900, of course; some twenty years earlier he had done a beautiful series (in oil) of Venetian street scenes and interiors. But from about 1900 to 1913, when "swarms of smart Londoners" managed to drive him away,4 he visited Venice almost yearly, and he painted it most often by far in watercolor (the majority of Sargent's late watercolors are Venetian). Sargent's earlier oils were painted on solid ground and depicted the "Venice in Venice that...others seemed never to have perceived" that Whistler had discovered slightly earlier,5 the Venice of back streets, small squares, and interiors that tourists seldom saw and artists seldom depicted. His later Venetian watercolors are painted from "gondola perspective"6 as he floated through the city's canals (they often include the prow of his gondola to make that point of view explicit), looking at its buildings and depicting its major architectural monuments and public spaces. They are painted not only with the seemingly effortless fluency that characterizes Sargent's work in every medium, but with a
fluidity -- a wetness both of appearance and of the process by which Sargent painted them --that befits the consistently watery perspective from which Sargent observed Venice, the "perpetual fluidity beneath"7 him as he floated effortlessly through the city.

In depicting figures, Gondoliers' Siesta is something of a rarity among Sargent's later Venetian watercolors (as is the fact, too, that it is dated, 1905). And instead of the clear blue skies and vibrantly coruscating light of most of Sargent's Venetian watercolors, Gondoliers' Siesta is, with its overcast sky, more subdued, more languid, shadowy, and even mysterious. In all these respects it recalls, more than most of Sargent's Venetian watercolors, the dark streets and alleys and slightly sinister occupants of his first Venetian series of the 1880s.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Senior curator of American and British paintings


1. Evan Charteris, John Sargent (London, 1927), 95.
2. Quoted in Charteris 1927, 155.
3. John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours (London, 1970), chap. 5.
4. Charteris 1927, 171.
5. Letter to Marcus B. Huish, probably January 1880,  Glasgow University Library, quoted in Richard Dorment et
   al., James McNeill Whistler [exh. cat., Tate Gallery] (London, 1994), 179.
6. The term is Tony Tanner's, Venice Desired (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 173, apropos Henry James: "perpetual
   architecture above you and perpetual fluidity beneath" (Italian Hours [New York, 1958], 19 - 20). It is cited in
   Donna Seldin Janis, "Venice," in Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscape (New York, 1997), 186.
7. See note 6, above.

Copyright ©1999 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Palmettos (1917), watercolor.
Robbie and Sam Vickers Collection.
Copyright © 1999 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

In 1916, Sargent left Europe for a two-year visit to the United States, to oversee the final  installation of the Boston Library murals. While in Florida to paint a portrait of John D.
Rockefeller, he was attracted to the luxuriant  vegetation of the near-tropical climate and painted several watercolors of Palmettos . In the close-up depiction of the sunlit palms, he
explored the geometric shape of the plant to  create intricate patterns.

Copyright ©1999 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.


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