Carrara and John Singer Sargent

Beauty and Destruction in the Marble Mountains.
John Singer Sargent Watercolors
MFA Boston October 13, 2013 - January 20, 2014.

Wet Quarries  Carrara  1911                                                                                                         John Singer Sargent, MFA Boston
The great American painter John Singer Sargent was fascinated with white and with light, so his visit to Carrara to paint scenes in the quarries hardly seems surprising. The initial surprise is that this artist - famous for artistic and flattering oil portraits of the rich, the lovely, and the loyal - would express his interest in the world's most famous marble in watercolor. But Sargent was a serious artist first, and in an era of artistic flux, he chose to express his complete talent - and express he did.  He used the Carrara quarries to investigate a different aspect of his watercolor artistry.  Sargent's characteristic but subtle geometric composition is minimized, often replaced with disorder bordering on abstraction.   The colors are very different from other themes in the exhibit. Rather than the attention-getting multi-layered colors, he uses subtle whites with the rusty red-brown found in the fissures and topsoil around weathered Carrara marble.

Marmo Statuario, 1911                                                                                                                                         John Singer Sargent

This first major exhibit of John Singer Sargent's watercolors has just opened at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and his work from Carrara is one of several major themes in his watercolor effort. The show displays almost 100 Sargent watercolors and was organized by the MFA Boston and the Brooklyn Museum - each of which owns large collections of Sargent's work.  The show well illustrates the  vibrancy and the often saturated colors of Sargent's watercolor work, unexpected when presented to an art world accustomed to a watercolor being languidly transparent. One critic at the time said he was like, 'an eagle in a dove-cote'. About a dozen of the paintings are from his Carrara visit.

Lizzatori II, 1911                                                                                                                                                      John Singer Sargent

Like Michelangelo on his visits to Carrara 400 years before, the quarries demanded Sargent overcome the rigors of the harsh environment.  A friend recalled Sargent's devotion to the subject: "While painting at the Carrara marble quarries, [Sargent] slept for weeks in a hut so completely devoid of all ordinary comforts that his companions, far younger men, fled after a few days, unable to stand the Spartan rigors tolerated by their senior with such serene indifference."

Carrara In A Quarry 2                                                                                                                                          John Singer Sargent

The mountain workings that Sargent saw were very different from those that Michelangelo knew - and the difference was dynamite and steel cable, which came into use in the latter half of the 1800's. Using dynamite, the marble was blasted from the mountains with incredible inefficiency - about 90% of the marble so quarried became mountainside waste. Steel cable was more efficient, used along with a sand slurry abrasive, and it created a real industry. Sargent painted the disorder he saw - not majestic mountains, as he painted around the Simplon Pass. He painted the disorder of broken rock, broken mountains. Together the Carrara paintings help show the wonderful wide talent of the artist John Singer Sargent, and the dismal destruction of the marble mountains.

More Info

John Singer Sargent Watercolors MFA Boston  October 3, 013 to January 20, 2014
Villa di Marlia Fountain         Lucca 1910                     John Singer Sargent

The John Singer Sargent Watercolors will appear at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston  March 2, 2014 to May 26, 2014. Review Exhibit review with history and technique.

The New Yorker Blog Joshua Rothman reviews the show, July, 2013.

Full Sargent Biography The Wikipedia article on Sargent is extensive and well illustrated.

Written by Martha