Monday, May 4, 2015

Abstraction is Nothing New



Ancient Egypt, Figurine of a Woman, ca. 1696–1539 BCE. Terra cotta, 4 11/16" x 1 7/16 x 1/2" (12 x 3.7 x 1.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5018)

I’m making a declaration: artists were inspired to create abstract art thousands of years ago. When one (and by “one” I mean a person reading an art history text) reads about any art that pre-dates the early 1900s that shows extreme simplification, the author inevitably says that it “has an almost abstract” quality. Then there are the other words usually paired with abstract ancient art: extreme simplification, stylization, idealization, conceptualization, etc. Two of the most basic definitions of abstraction are “the reduction of forms to their simplest state”(simplification) and “an artwork that does not represent objects of the observed physical world” (stylization). I propose that the study of ancient cultures now include such subjects as “The Abstract Wing of The Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt.”

Going all the way back to the earliest dynasties of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2650–2184 BCE), the realistic depiction of human beings and animals is readily evident. Naturally, the realism was softened when depicting rulers or members of the nobility so that they looked like fresh, young, perfect human beings. For more humble officials and their families, the realism was often more spot on. Even in the hyper realism, though, there is a stiffness and simplification of forms that could “hint at abstraction.” This may be partially because of the block-like, rigid formality of the pose of the figures, a convention that lasted almost 3000 years in Egyptian art.

This figurine dates from the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, ca 1696–1539 BCE. This was a chaotic period when the Hyksos, a Semitic people from the east, invaded and occupied northern Egypt. They ruled as the Fifteenth Dynasty, while Egyptian princes of the Thirteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth ruled southern Egypt from Thebes. Kamose (reigned ca. early 1540s BCE), the pharaoh in Thebes began a rebellion that eventually led to the destruction of the Hyksos dynasty. His brother Ahmose (reigned ca. 1539–1514 BCE) restored a united Egypt under Dynasty Eighteen.

The purpose of this figurine is not known, although it bears similarities to pre-dynastic female and male figures that are extremely simplified excepting, the details of their anatomically specific parts.  Compared to the realism of funerary sculpture of this period, this is refreshingly original. Various theories explain this figurine as Nubian (Kushite), the Upper Nile culture, or simply the product of an “unofficial” artist who was not following the accepted artistic conventions.

It reminds me of the abstract Akua ‘Ba figures from the Asante culture (traditionally matriarchal) in Ghana that were traditionally carried by girls to help teach them about motherhood, and by pregnant women to ensure a healthy birth. The Akua’Ba are marvelous abstract summations of some of the traditionally held ideals of feminine beauty.

Asante People, Ghana, Akua’Ba, 1900s. Wood, height: 13 3/8" (34 cm). Private Collection. Image © Davis Art Images. (8S-10517)

Here are a couple more examples of ancient Egyptian abstraction. I really like the block expressions of individuals, so similar to the seated scribe genre. And do we see a little Giacometti in the standing male figure?

Block Statue of Ay, ca. 1327–1323 BCE. Limestone, 18 1/2" x 10 x 12 3/16" (47 x 25 x 31 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-570) 
Figurine of a Man, ca. 1986–1759 BCE. Copper, 5" x 1 1/2" x 1" (12.7 x 3.81 x 2.54 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1003)

And here is a 20th century artist who was there when they “invented” abstraction in the early 1900s. I wonder which inspired him more: ancient art or “primitive” art?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920, Italy), Head of a Woman, 1910 / 1911. Limestone, 25 5/8" x 7 1/2" x 9 3/4" (65.2 x 19 x 24.8 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-S0080)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.4; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 2; Experience Clay: 3; Exploring Visual Design: 10; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3

Monday, April 27, 2015

Revisiting Gandhara


Pakistan, from Gandhara, Head of a Bodhisattva, late 100s to early 200s CE. Black slate, 12 ¼" x 10 x 9" (31.1 x 25.4 x 22.9 cm). © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-71)
 Believe it or not, this is a Buddhist bodhisattva (saint). My very first posting for this blog was about the Greek invasion of northern India and how it affected some of the earliest images of the Buddha. I just thought I’d revisit the topic because it’s a fascinating example of how this world truly is a global village. Did you ever join hands with three or four friends around a really old, big tree? That’s sort of how I look at these artistic connections!

The early Indus Valley civilizations produced mostly small-scale sculpture of steatite and limestone. The most notable sculpture of the Mauryan period (320–185 BCE) was edict pillars erected during the reign of its greatest leader Ashoka (304–232 BCE). Many monastic communities were hewn out of rock and adorned with sculpture. The earliest stupas from the first 200 years BCE had important carved gateways and surrounding fences, and included some larger-scale figures of the Buddha. In southern India, religious complexes were decorated with complicated bas-relief programs.
      
After the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 185 BCE), India broke into several local power centers, each vying for supremacy and troubled by harassment by northern peoples. One of these, the Kushan, had left the western borders of China (called Yuezhi by the Chinese). The Kushan entered India through Afghanistan in the first one hundred years BCE. They had already displaced the Persians in the lands once conquered (332 BCE) by Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE). After establishing a dynasty in India, the Kushans established trade with Roman colonies.
      
Two significant styles developed between the 100s and 400s CE, the art of Gandhara (now Pakistan), and the art of Mathura (far to the south and east). It was during the Kushan period when the first sculpted images of the Buddha were produced. Because there were no Buddhist figural images before contact with Western cultures, Roman and Hellenistic forms gave shape to sculptures of bodhisattvas and the Buddha.
      
The Gandhara-type Buddha typically has an oval face, arching high brow, and broad nose. The wavy hair, tied in a ribbon, was a Greek style seen, for example, in the Vatican's "Apollo Belvedere." This fashion detail gradually became the symbolic top knot (ushnisha) on the Buddha's head, which was a symbol of his wisdom. The moustache is an Indian characteristic, as is the caste mark on the forehead. Gandhara Buddhist figures had a profound influence on subsequent images of the Buddha. Ironically, in the 500s CE, in the region where the sculpted image of the Buddha was born, an invasion by Huns stamped out Buddhism forever.

Pakistan, Bust of a Bodhisattva, from the Gandhara region, 100s–200s CE. Gray schist. © Dallas Museum of Art. (DAM-20)

Pakistan, Head of the Buddha, from the Gandhara region, ca. 200s CE. Schist, 7" x 4" x 2 15/16" (17.8 x 10.2 x 7.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2971)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.2, 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Community Connection: 3.2; A Global Pursuit: 3.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 13.2; Discovering Art History: 2.1, 2.2, 4.2

Friday, April 24, 2015

Patriots Day Week


Joseph Badger (1707/1708–1765, US), Mrs. John Haskins, 1759. Oil on canvas, 35 13/16" x 28 3/8" (91 x 72 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-694)

Since Monday was Patriots Day, as well as the running of the Boston Marathon, I’m celebrating this week—in an art historical way, of course—with one of my favorite colonial portrait painters: Joseph Badger. He is sort of in the shade (art historically speaking) of more prominent early painters such as John Smibert (1688–1751) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). All three artists were active in Boston at some point. Once the American colonies were prosperous, well-to-do Americans wanted to show that they had just as much class as their English counterparts, and one way was by commissioning portraits. Portraiture was, aside from overmantle landscapes, practically the only subject matter in early American painting.

In the first three decades of the 18th century, prosperous Americans preferred to have their portraits painted by artists born and trained in Europe, primarily in England. These painters, such as Peter Pelham (1691–1751), John Wollaston (c. 1710–1775), and John Smibert, were able to portray fashionable colonists in the same idealized, courtly style as English gentry. With Smibert in Boston gone by mid-century, the vacuum was filled by artists such as Badger.

Badger was evidently wholly self-trained. He moved from his native Charlestown into Boston in 1733 to work as a house and sign painter. He took up portraiture in 1740, and may have visited Smibert’s studio in Boston as it was near his. Badger rose in prominence in 1746 after Smibert’s retirement. He thrived as a portrait painter until the 1760s, when he was eclipsed by the more sophisticated style of a younger contemporary (and eventual royalist), John Singleton Copley.

Badger’s lack of training is evident in his unsophisticated, stiff treatment of the human figure, and simple, forthright likeness of the sitter, as seen in Mrs. John Haskins. The presentational gesture of her right hand is an English 1600s and 1700s portrait device meant to point to the sitter’s accomplishments, material success, or, in this case, to a companion portrait of her husband. Like English portraiture, Haskins is surrounded by a filmy, non-specific landscape populated by wispy trees and a glowing sky, which forms an aura around the figure.

This portrait by William Hogarth (1697–1764) from roughly the same period shows interesting differences in how the English late-Baroque style translated in America. What I love about American portraiture from the pre-Revolutionary period is the absolute fidelity to the sitter’s likeness. This penchant for unvarnished realism in American painting is what I believe makes it a standout against European painting of the periodan honest, forthright and sympathetic depiction of people who were blazing trails in a totally new country, away from the many decadent indulgences of the prosperous classes in Europe at the time.

William Hogarth (1697–1764 Britain), Mrs William James, 1744. Oil on canvas, 30" x 25" (76.2 x 63.5 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-416)

Other portraits by Badger:

Dr William Foster, 1755. Oil on canvas, 35 3/4" x 28 1/8" (90.8 x 71.4 cm). © National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0811)

Rebecca Orme (later Mrs Joseph Cabot), 1757. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8" x 20 3/4" (65.2 x 52.7 cm). © Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. (WAM-460)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; A Community Connection: 2.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 10; Exploring Visual Design: 3; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.3; Discovering Art History: 2.2, 11.5

Monday, April 6, 2015

National Ocean Awareness Week


William Trost Richards (1833–1905, US), Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, 1871. Watercolor on paper, 7 ½" x 12 7/8" (19.1 x 32.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1057)
With the arctic ice flows melting and the oceans rising because of climate change, we should call April 4-10 Hey, Wake Up and Pay Attention to the Ocean Week. Needless to say, the oceans are vital to the planet’s survival. They have also been vital as subject matter in art since the artists of ancient Egypt and Crete painted walls with scenes of marine life. Of the many artists who specialized in painting the many moods of the ocean, I like the Dutch Baroque painters first and William Trost Richards a very close second. If I were locked in an empty room with nothing but a Richards seascape to look at, I’d definitely be happy as a clam (the pun stays).

Richards was born in Philadelphia, and most of his life, between numerous trips to Europe, he spent winters in Pennsylvania and summers in Newport, RI. He had little formal schooling, but studied briefly with a landscape painter. He initially worked as an illustrator and designer of decorative metalwork, but early on his interest was in landscape. He first exhibited with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 19. At 21 he was introduced to the Hudson River School artists and his lifetime devotion to landscape was confirmed. Between 1854 and 1869 he honed his skill at landscape by doing incredibly detailed drawings of elements of nature.

Richards’ many trips to England starting in 1855 exposed him to the Pre-Raphaelite artists there. The Pre-Raphaelites eschewed the theatrical painting of Romanticism and emphasized the realism of late medieval and early Renaissance painting, before the bombastic painting programs of the High Renaissance in Raphael and Michelangelo. In America, Pre-Raphaelite painters abandoned legendary or religious subjects favored by their English counterparts for extremely detailed paintings of nature. Their work was influenced by the writings of the English critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), who advised artists to follow nature as closely as possible to produce art that was transcendental.

Richards avoided the large, often exotic landscapes of the Hudson River School artists in favor of intimate views of nature. He is often named as a member of the White Mountain School because of his many landscapes of New England. The integrity of his realism in nature got him elected to the National Academy in New York in 1862.

After the Civil War (1860–1865), taste for the Hudson River School’s romantic-realist views of nature waned. After 1870, Richards concentrated almost entirely on views of the ocean in every conceivable type of weather. He spent hours wading into the surf to do detailed studies of the waves and effects of light on the water, often producing watercolors, such as Thunderheads at Sea: the Pearl, which he translated into oils on canvas in the studio. This Thunderheads at Sea very much reminds me of Dutch Baroque seascapes with its low horizon line and dramatic, dominating cloud formations. It is very clear to see in Richards’ works the power of nature and the reverence the Pre-Raphaelites had for it, and how, in their minds, nature summed up the existence of the divine.

Some more seascapes by William Trost Richards:

Calm Before a Storm, Newport, 1874. Watercolor on paper, 8 ¼" x 13 5/8" (21 x 34.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1058)

Marine, 1898. Oil on canvas, 52 1/4" x 33 ¼" (132.7 x 84.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4592)

A Rough Surf, after 1890. Oil on composition board, 8 3/16" x 14 3/8" (20.8 x 36.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2689)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.21, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 5.27; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 3.14, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7, 2.7-8 studio, 2.9, 2.11, 2.connections; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2; Experience Painting: 2; Exploring Painting: 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5, 11, 12

Monday, March 30, 2015

It’s Here — Really

Ernest Lawson (1873–1939, US), Spring Night, Harlem River, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 25 1/8" x 30 1/8" (63.8 x 76.5 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-245)
Spring really is here, although it may not yet look like it outside (it’s actually snowing right now!). How about experiencing it on the inside with these two phenomenally beautiful little paintings by Ernest Lawson? He’s another of those artists who is not exactly a household name (even in art history households—yes, they do exist), which is unfortunate. Like many, many, many artists, his career as an artist was not rewarded with massive riches, but his vision as an artist never failed to see the beauty around him, particularly in spring.

Ernest Lawson was born in Nova Scotia. He studied painting at the Art Students League in New York, and then in the Cos Cob Art Colony in Connecticut. His mentors there were Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919) and John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), both of whom had studied in France and developed a type of American Impressionism. Lawson, from early on, adapted the Impressionist palette, and the delicate tonalities and textures of his two mentors from Cos Cob.

From 1893 to 1896 Lawson was in France. He briefly attended the Académie Julien, where many of the impressionists had studied in the late 1860s. He met the impressionist Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), and thereafter confirmed a love of painting outdoors. When he returned to the United States, he concentrated painting scenes of Manhattan in all different weather and seasons, communicating a deep love for the city.  Many of Lawson’s scenes of New York are of Harlem, then on the edge of as yet unbuilt-upon land.

This painting of the Washington Bridge between Harlem and the Bronx on 181st Street on a glistening spring night is a worthy descendant of French Impressionism. Compare it to Monet’s Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil. The composition is strikingly similar, as is the beauty of Lawson’s color harmonies and palette. Lawson’s compositions tended to emphasize strong horizontals balanced by verticals of trees, grass, and, in this painting, the vertical supports of the bridge.

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas, 13 7/16" x 28 13/16" (54.3 x 73.3 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1062)

Lawson’s impressionist palette combined with a strong compositional sense must have seemed too progressive for the time because it did not follow the old formulas. After the rejection of a painting by the dictatorial National Academy of Design in New York in 1905, he joined the rebellion against it by joining with the group called The Eight, who are also called the Ash Can School for their unvarnished realistic scenes of New York. Lawson exhibited with them for one show in 1908. He also joined with the Independent Artists exhibition in 1910 and the Armory Show in 1913. This was really the high point of his career. He never really became a financial success as a painter. In the 1920s he briefly pursued a career in teaching.

Here’s another view of the Washington Bridge from the other side, looking in the same direction:

Ernest Lawson, Spring Morning, 1913. Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 16 1/8" x 20 1/8" (41 x 51.1 cm). © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-244)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.19-20 studio, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.3-4 studio, 1.4; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.7; A Community Connection: 6.2, 6.4; Experience Painting: 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 11; Exploring Visual Design: 5; The Visual Experience: 9.3; Discovering Art History: 15.1, 15.activity 1

Monday, March 23, 2015

Women’s (Art) History Month


Nell Blaine (1922–1996, US), Cosmos and Limes, 1968. Oil on canvas, 18 1/8" x 14 3/16" (46 x 36 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16952)
There are so many inspiring stories involving artists throughout history that I could probably crank out a blog every day! (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that!) But, to celebrate Women’s History Month I am going to introduce you to an artist I once saw speak in the 1980s, and whose work I’ve always admired, because her palette and mine are very similar. I think what she said in Art: A Woman’s Sensibility could sum up many artists’ feelings about what makes them paint, “I enjoy color more than words, and shapes more than sentences. When in the street, I instinctively notice the size and color of letters on a sign, not their directives.” As she says at the end of that essay: “Long live Painting!” (Art: A Woman’s Sensibility. © 1975. Miriam Schapiro, Director, Feminist Art Program, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia.)

Nell Blaine is a monumentally inspiring person in the history of artists, but she is rarely, if ever, featured in art history surveys. This is true despite the fact that 79 artists held an exhibition to raise money for her hospital bills in 1959, including Motherwell, the de Koonings, Freilicher, and Rauschenberg. She whipped polio and went on to create a vibrant, colorful body of work in oil and watercolor.

Blaine was born in Virginia and moved to New York in 1942 to study under Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). Hofmann was a mentor of sorts to some of the Abstract Expressionists. She was a member of the only group dedicated to abstraction during the Social Realist years of the Great Depression (1929–1940), the Abstract American Artists. Her early realist painting turned abstract under the influence of Mondrian, Helion, and Léger, all of whom worked in some type of geometric abstraction. In the late 1940s, she attracted the attention of Clement Greenberg, the art critic/essayist who marketed Abstract Expressionism. However, by the mid-1950s, she had returned to representation, developing a painterly and colorful style, focusing on painting from direct observation of nature or still life. Her particular passion was the depiction of flowers in pure colors. Her first solo show was 1953, and she was featured as a leading young woman artist in Life magazine in 1957.

On a trip to Greece in 1959, Blaine contracted polio and ended up in the hospital in New York for eight months, some of that time in an iron lung. Although told in 1960 that she would never paint again, she trained herself to paint in oils with her left hand and watercolors and drawing with her right. Her primary subjects after that were sweeping cityscapes of New York and its environs, and of the area around Gloucester, MA, where she bought a home in 1975. She also lived and worked in Europe for months at a time.

This still life is typical of her love of pure color, particularly cobalt violet. Her work of the 1960s through the 1980s recalls a trip she made in 1950 to Paris, where the work of Bonnard and Vuillard had a major impact on her. She thereafter studied 1800s French painting. While her forms are abstracted with loose brush work, they betray a certain tradition of compositional structure that goes back to Cézanne, the Nabis, and through Matisse. Her work is joyful and shows how she delighted in depicting the natural world. Her statements about color are demonstrated in her paintings!

Other works by the artist:

Nell Blaine, Outdoor Festival, 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 15/16" x 62 3/16" (104 x 158 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16935)
Here one sees the artist on the verge of returning to figuration and objects. Poor Clement Greenburg.

Nell Blaine, Interior, Greece, 1959. Oil on canvas, 50" x 59 13/16" (127 x 152 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16937)
I suspect that this was painted during her trip to Greece. Note how the forms are now firmly back in the representational arena.

Nell Blaine, Brisk Day, 1974. Watercolor on paper, 14 3/16" x 20" (36 x 51 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16961)
A view of the skyline in New York often painted by Blaine.

Nell Blaine, View from the Ledge, 1975. Oil on canvas, 35" x 45 5/8" (89 x 116 cm). Photo courtesy of the Artist, Davis Art Images. (8S-16967)
This painting with its gorgeous bright colors certainly reflects Blaine’s enthusiasm for the wilds of Massachusetts after she bought the house in Gloucester.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.6; A Personal Journey: 2.6; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 7.2; Discovering Drawing: 4; Experience Painting: 4, 6; Exploring Painting: 9; Discovering Art History: 13 activity 1

Monday, March 16, 2015

5 Days and Counting


John Singer Sargent (1856–1925, US), Pomegranates, 1908. Watercolor on paper, 21 3/16" x 14 7/16" (53.8 x 36.7 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4857)
Here is a gorgeous little Sargent to stoke your Spring Fever. You know, I never come across a Sargent watercolor I don’t like. Just looking at this beautiful work makes me feel as if there is a warm breeze on my face. Some art historians may doggedly ride that worn out horse of Sargent as the “best portrait painter of his generation,” but, as I feel about Winslow Homer (1836–1910), his watercolors are BY FAR the most brilliant part of his marvelous body of work. Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) once said that Claude Monet (1840–1926) was “just an eye, but God, what an eye!” in relation to what he (Cézanne) felt about the restrictions of Impressionism. Well, I say the same thing about Sargent’s watercolors.

John Singer Sargent is such an interesting person, and unlike many who became successful flattering wealthy people in portraits, he doesn’t seem to have had such a big ego. Like Monet, he always sought to grow as an artist and try new things. Born in Italy of American parents, Sargent learned early in his studies as a painter under the French pseudo-academic, fashionable portraitist Carolus-Duran (18371917). Carolus-Duran introduced Sargent to the idea of painting immediately without executing numerous studies in order to achieve a fresh, authentic depiction of a subject, and exploit the possibilities of a lively surface in oil. This idea was reinforced when he met Monet in the mid-1880s, painted outdoors (en plein air) with him and exhibited with him in 1885.

Although Sargent exhibited subjects other than portraits in the Salon in Paris, he never achieved the recognition with his other subjects as he did with his portraits. His fashionable portraits of the wealthy came to define his career. The 1890s were Sargent’s busiest and most lucrative years of portrait painting. By 1900 he tired of the artifice and formulaic nature of depicting wealthy sitters and he turned increasingly to watercolor. In taking up watercolor, Sargent returned to emphasizing painting outdoors. 

Between 1900 and 1914 he created over 700 watercolors, painted almost entirely outdoors, in brilliant pure colors with virtually no pencil outlines. Abundant numbers of watercolors were produced on trips to Italy, Corfu, through the Swiss Alps, in Spain and in North Africa, as well as in the American West and Florida. 

This study of pomegranates came from a trip to Spain in 1908, where he made numerous sketches and watercolor studies of the exotic fruit. Not only does he brilliantly explore the opaque possibilities of pure watercolor hues, like Homer, he uses the lightness of the paper to aid in his highlights, rather than using white gouache as highlights. He also painted the subject in oil. In the US in 1909 he had the first of only two exhibitions of his watercolors. He showed 86 works, 83 of which were bought by the Brooklyn Museum, an astounding purchase of art from a living artist working in what was considered at the time to be a “minor” medium.

The fact is, because of the emphasis on watercolors by Homer and Sargent, the medium had found the path to asserting itself as a standalone medium in fine art. It was no longer merely a study medium. I think we would be hard-pressed to think of any other artists in the Western world who worked so diligently in perfecting their work in the watercolor medium as finished works.

A version in oil:

John Singer Sargent , Pomegranates, Majorca, ca. 1908. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4" x 22" (73 x 56 cm). © Terra Foundation of American Art, Chicago, IL. (8S-29058)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.4connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.1, 1.1-2 studio, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.4, 1.6, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.5; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 2.9, 2.11; A Community Connection: 6.2, 6.4; Experience Painting: 2, 4; Exploring Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 8, 11 (random); The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1