Grand Tourist

The DAM shines a light on John Singer Sargent's love affair with Italy.

The work in the DAM show covers Sargent's entire career, with the oldest pieces dating to the 1870s and the newest from the 1920s. The show has been installed thematically, which I ordinarily despise, but considering the tightly defined topic -- Sargent's trips through Italy -- it works. Plus, Sargent sampled different styles throughout his career - simultaneously exploring academicism, realism, impressionism and post-impressionism -- so it's hard, even when looking at the work chronologically, to intuit any kind of progressive stylistic development over the years.

Sargent and Italy begins with paintings of Venice and Capri -- an odd pairing, considering that the former is in the northeast end of Italy and the latter in the southwest. Most of these paintings are small, easel-sized canvases, and there are several that are gorgeous.

Right from the start, it's easy to see how readily Sargent was able to absorb the influences of other artists of his time. "The Sulphur Match," from 1882, an oil on canvas depicting a woman bathed in light with a smoking man sitting in the dark background, has more than a little of Manet's realism. On the opposite wall is a painting done in a very different style, titled "Sortie de l'église"; it's another oil on canvas from 1882, but it's downright impressionist, chiefly a study in reflected light. And that's even more true of the fabulous "Venice Par Temps Gris," from 1880-1882, that hangs nearby.

"The Sulphur Match," by John Singer Sargent, oil on 
"The Sulphur Match," by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas.
"The Libreria," oil on canvas.
"The Libreria," oil on canvas.


Through September 21
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

In the next gallery are Alpine paintings, and these are really surprising, especially in the way they resemble the views of the Rockies done at the same time. That makes sense when you think about it, though, because the artists who made pilgrimages to the American West in the nineteenth century had more than likely studied in Paris, just as Sargent had.

There's a decidedly Cézannesque handling of the foreground in a couple of these landscapes, such as "Cypress Trees at San Vigilio," from 1913. Also in the post-impressionist camp is the view of the same quaint town in "San Vigilio, Lake Garda," done in 1913. The wild colors, especially the blues and greens used for the water, and the aggressive, broad, paint-laden brush strokes are astounding -- and a revelation to me, since they come from an artist who I thought was a fairly conservative.

The country life is the theme of the third gallery, and there's more of the kind of expressionism seen in the "Lake Garda" piece -- in particular, in the marvelous "Val d'Aosta: A Man Fishing," from 1907. Sargent carries out the idyllic scene in rich, creamy pastel tones of oil paint that's been essentially scribbled on. Again, this is something that's a real surprise coming from Sargent. Though curator Standring pointed out that Sargent was modern but no Kandinsky, based on these paintings I'd add that even if he wasn't cutting-edge, he wasn't behind the times, either.

A number of smallish oil portraits have been assembled in the fourth gallery, but there are also watercolors of fountains, windows and sculptures. Many of the portraits depict Sargent's artist friends, such as Antonio Mancini, and there's one extremely severe study in browns and grays of the legendary Italian actress Eleanora Duse.

At this point, there's a dogleg that leads to the fifth gallery, where the education component has been placed. In this interactive display, meant for kids and adults, visitors are invited to make imaginary postcards with pre-inked rubber stamps (gag).

The sixth and final gallery brings us back to Venice, which was obviously a favorite subject for Sargent. There are many wonderful watercolors of the buildings and water features of Venice, and many of them depict the view at canal, as opposed to piazza, level, which is really sort of strange. This canal-level-view is seen in "The Libreria," an oil on canvas from 1904, which is absolutely wild and could be a 1980s neo-expressionist composition instead of the post-impressionist-style work that history forces it to be.

I thought I knew what Sargent's style was all about. You know -- those society pictures. But I was wrong, and the proof that he was quite a bit more than a court painter is found in spades in Sargent and Italy, which will be at the DAM all summer.

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