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

Grand Tourist

For the past ten years or so, the Denver Art Museum has presented one important exhibit after another, focusing on art from the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first ones of the twentieth. As a result, Denver audiences have enjoyed numerous explorations of such relevant topics as impressionism, post-impressionism and early modernism. And major figures such as Matisse, Homer and, most recently, Bonnard, have been seen in solo presentations.

It's been wonderful, hasn't it?

The DAM's director, Lewis Sharp, has been pretty savvy to push this type of sure-to-please programming, because the movements and artists of that time are guaranteed to attract viewers and therefore generate ticket sales. After all, the period from the 1870s to the 1930s was a watershed in the history of art, and its "isms" are beloved by the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi alike. (Acting against type, the recently closed Bonnard show did not do as well as expected -- but it did have a blizzard to contend with and all that free-floating French-bashing in the air during the its run. C'est la vie.)


Sargent and Italy

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

The beat goes on, and there's another traveling show with a focus on art of the fin de siècle at the DAM: the thoroughly diverting Sargent and Italy, installed in the large Hamilton galleries off the main lobby. As may be discerned from its title, Sargent and Italy examines the Italian works done by American painter John Singer Sargent.

The elegant exhibit debuted at Ferrara Arte in Italy last fall before going on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this past winter and spring and finally winding up its tour in Denver. It was not originally set to come here, but the DAM's head curator, Timothy Standring, snagged it at the last minute. During one of his frequent trips to Italy, Standring ran into Andrea Buzzoni, director of Ferrara Arte. Buzzoni mentioned to Standring that he wanted to borrow one of the DAM's Sisleys, setting the stage for a return favor. So, as they say, one hand washed the other, and Standring found himself in the right place to score the show.

Loans to Sargent and Italy have been made by renowned museums around the world, including the Tate in London, the Metropolitan in New York, and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome. There are also loans from many private collections, the majority of which have never before seen the gallery light of day. The British curators of the show, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, made this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these Italian pieces all in one place. And who other than Ormond and Kilmurray, the co-authors of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, would even know where to find them, considering that a good deal were lent anonymously?

Sargent worked mostly in Europe around a century ago and is now, as he was then, best known for his society portraits, in which wealthy subjects were made to appear glamorous and beautiful -- even when neither was a true reflection of the sitter. In this way, he was the Andy Warhol of his time -- and like Warhol, Sargent was a gay dandy reveling in the chic and fashion-conscious world of the rich.

These monumental commissioned portraits earned Sargent not only his keep, but his place in the history of art, as well. Sargent and Italy begins with one of these portraits, "Mrs. Ralph Curtis," an oil on canvas from 1898, but it's the only one of this type in the exhibit, because while he was in Italy, Sargent painted for his own amusement and not according to the demands of commissions. The show, therefore, looks at the work done during the artist's version of an annual busman's holiday.

Like many nineteenth-century American artists, Sargent loved Italy. But unlike others of his generation, he was actually born there. Sargent's parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent, a descendant of a notable Boston family, and Mary Newbold Singer, a Philadelphia socialite, expatriated to Italy and chose to raise their son in Florence. Sargent first revealed his artistic talent as a child, and in 1874, at age eighteen, he went to Paris to study with the academician Carolus-Duran. Two years later, he made his first trip to the United States, attending the 1876 centennial exposition in Philadelphia. After that, he returned to Italy on a regular basis, and it is the paintings done on these many trips that fill the DAM show.

By the 1880s, Sargent had come into his own as a portrait artist both in the United States and Europe and maintained a studio and residence in Paris. But success did not come without scandal. In the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent exhibited one of his best-remembered pieces, "Madame X," which showed an unidentified woman in a black evening gown with a plunging neckline. The informal pose of the woman and her revealing dress caused an uproar, and Sargent felt compelled to leave Paris for good. ("Madame X" might be even more scandalous than previously thought: See this week's Artbeat, page 57.) The artist moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life -- when he wasn't traveling to Italy, that is. In 1925, the day before he was to leave for the States to oversee an installation of a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Sargent died.

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.

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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