Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Tamera Lenz Muente
Our program “Travels with Sargent:  Watercolors by an American Master” was given by our guest speaker, Tamera Lenz Muente, Assistant Curator at the Taft Museum of Art here in Cincinnati.

Some highlights of the presentation (with notes taken in the dark!) follow:

Sergeant was born in 1856 and spent the first years of his life in a rather nomadic existence, as his parents traveled throughout Europe.  His mother, a skilled watercolor artist, taught him much about art, and by age 11 he showed talent as a budding artist.  By age 14 he had become a skilled watercolorist, filling pages of sketchbooks with paintings from his travels with his parents. 

His travels brought him into contact with the paintings of the Old Masters from which he learned much.  He began studying at the Ecole des Beaux Artes in Paris at the age of 18, having applied and been accepted at the ripe old age of 18.  By age 21 he was showing annually at the Paris Salon.  His work was primarily portraits of wealthy socialites, writers and artists.

Sargent traveled 3-4 months a year and became a consummate traveler, as comfortable in luxury as in rusticity, and learned to travel well on a small budget.  He was capable of long hikes to remote locations, and was not afraid of camping, all while carrying a trademark white parasol!  A typical day would begin with breakfast around 7:30 and continue until the light failed, with only a short break for lunch or afternoon “siesta” during hot weather.  His traveling companions complained that he was a “workaholic”.


Simplon Pass:  The Lesson
Pater Harrison (or Siesta)
While living in Paris he painted the socialite Virginie Gautreau.  His painting proved so scandalous (showing the thin strap of her dress falling from her shoulder) that it left his reputation ruined in that city.  (The painting was later “repaired” and the offending strap painted on top of her shoulder).  He then moved to London, taking up residence in Whistler’s former studio, and spent some years living in London and Boston, painting primarily portraits of London nobility and wealthy Bostonians.
Madame X (Virginie Gautreau)
Sargent continued traveling annually, making quick watercolor sketches of his traveling companions, as well as the cities of Europe and America.  However, he did not paint the typical tourist view, preferring to paint more mundane scenes of every day life.  While in Venice, Sargent would often paint from a gondola, painting the water reflections of the canal rather than the grand buildings; the underside of the Rialto Bridge; and the quiet alley ways as seen from the canals.  While in Carera, Italy, he painted the Carera marble quarry and the workmen among the slabs of marble; laundry hanging from a line; scenes from daily life.  He referred to these quick sketches as “snapshots”.
A Mosque, Cairo, 1891

Carrera Workmen

Escutcheon of Charles V
Rio de Santa Maria Formosa

The Rialto (Grand Canal)
Venetian Canal Palazzo Corner

Venetian Doorway
During WWI Sargent traveled in North America since travel was impossible in Europe.  Since he loved hiking and painting the Alps in Europe, he was drawn to the Rocky Mountains, both US and Canadian.  While painting Lake Louise in Canada he complained of the tourists and moved to a more remote location, where he ultimately complained about the snow and noise of the waterfalls he was painting!
Camping at Lake O'Hara
From there he went to Florida in the winter and fell in love with the light.  It was here that he painted not only rich socialites such as John D. Rockefeller and Charles  Deering (founder of International Harvester) but also the flora and fauna, such as the palmettos, palms and alligators – all resplendent in the sunlight.
Charles Deering

Muddy Alligators

In 1918 he returned to Europe and worked as a war artist, painting with troops at the front in France.  Once again, however, he did not paint typical battlefield scenes, but smaller, more intimate paintings of hospital tents, and soldiers bathing and resting, and the aftermath of battles, ruined buildings with implements of daily life scattered among them.

Camp With Ambulance 1918

Wheels in Vault 1918

Tommies Bathing
Around 1920 Sargent was commissioned to paint several murals in Boston, among them murals for the Museum of Fine Art and the Boston Public Library.
Mural at Boston Public Library
Between 1900 and 1914 Sargent painted 700 watercolor paintings!

In 1909 he sold his first watercolors when the Brooklyn Museum of Art bought 83 – practically all he had on display at that show.

In 1912 the Boston Museum of Fine Art purchased 25 of his watercolors.

Sergeant died suddenly in 1925, sitting up in bed while reading Voltaire.

* * * * *
Tamera gave a splendid PowerPoint presentation and spoke eloquently about Sargent’s life and paintings.  We thank her, and hope to have her back again with another wonderful program!

Photos gleaned from the internet (courtesy of

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