Remember a little while ago when I was complaining that art historians never talk about Roger Fry? Well, I am reading my new book John Singer Sargent Watercolors, and Roger Fry comes up in a big way. I had completely forgotten about this fact when I picked up the book, but Fry was one of Sargent’s harshest critics. Even though I don’t think I ended up actually discussing it in my thesis, I read all of Fry’s main diatribes against Sargent during my research.
Personally, I quite like Sargent’s watercolors, but knowing Fry pretty well by this point (or so I like to think), I can understand why he disliked them. For one thing, Fry really liked crisp lines and clearly defined forms, while Sargent’s work is soft and out of focus. Fry was big on the idea that an artist cannot simply translate what he sees in front of him onto paper or canvas. In the simplest possible terms, he believed that great art requires the artist to in some manner adapt the visual appearances of the world around him in order to create something deeper than a simple reproduction of nature. I think that this was what he found lacking in Sargent’s work.
The book quotes Fry as having accused Sargent’s European watercolors of being “exactly what the average upper-class tourist sees”, which the authors see as a misunderstanding of Sargent’s work (25). However, I think that some things have gotten lost in translation (metaphorically), because when Fry’s complained that the works were lacking in “the spirit, atmosphere, or poetry of place” (28-29), it likely didn’t matter to him that Sargent’s unusual choices in composition, perspective, and brushwork make his works “bold, original, and challenging works of art” (25), because these aspects of Sargent’s work were still significant in their manipulation of real world appearances (to use a term favored by Fry), while Fry’s main criticism seems to have been that real world appearances were too important in Sargent’s work. The aspects of Sargent’s watercolors noted by the authors were the very things Fry had a problem with. Neither man was necessarily right or wrong, at least in my opinion; they were just speaking in slightly different languages. What I care about most, though, is the fact that this point led the authors to include a half-page color reproduction of Fry’s watercolor of Chartres Cathedral. Roger Fry’s best works rarely get half-page color illustrations in books, never mind an early and fairly unimportant watercolor.
Thus far the Sargent book has been excellent, and I am enjoying it greatly. It is the catalog of an exhibition that was recently held by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and has been discussed in every major magazine and newspaper covering the arts. Sadly, I was unable to see the exhibition when it was in New York, and I’m unlikely to see it in Boston, but having read about it in at least a half-dozen articles, I am familiar with the story behind the exhibition. In 1909, Sargent had a large group of watercolors that he had made on his world travels and that he wanted to sell as a single lot. Both the Brooklyn Museum and the MFA Boston wanted to purchase the grouping, and the Brooklyn won out, so Sargent made another set of watercolors to sell to the MFA Boston. This exhibition is the first time that both groups will be united. The book includes beautiful color photographs of the works in the exhibition along with short essays on various aspects of the watercolors.
Hirshler, Erica E. and Teresa A. Carbone. John Singer Sargent Watercolors. Boston: MFA Publications, 2013. Citations are from two essays within the book: “Sargent and Watercolor” by Richard Ormond, p. 15-25, and “Sargent’s Watercolors: Not for Sale” by Erica E. Hirshler, p. 27-47.