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Sargent and Italy


The West Coast's first comprehensive exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on February 2, 2003. Sargent and Italy explores the unique relationship between one of the best known American artists and Italy, the country of his birth. The extraordinary exhibition, which complements important works by Sargent in LACMA's permanent collection, consists of more than 75 paintings that gives audiences an understanding of the enduring significance of Italy to Sargent. The works will remain on view through May 11, 2003. Following the exhibition at LACMA, the exhibit travels to the Denver Art Museum: June 28 through September 21, 2003 

Sargent is most famous for his grand manner portraits that epitomize the elegance and glamour of international high society at the end of the nineteenth century. But he began his career in the late 1870s and early 1880s painting the island of Capri and the hidden byways of Venice. Between 1897 and 1914, Sargent traveled to Italy every year to paint his favorite subjects. (left: John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Ralph Curtis, 1898, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 1998.168, © The Cleveland Museum of Art)

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents. The Sargents traveled through Europe incessantly in pursuit of culture, returning most frequently to Italy-an older country, charged with classical culture, but also warm and sensual. Land of the Renaissance, of the Medici, of Leonardo, and Michelangelo, Italy was also a land of color, of uninhibited emotion, and extravagance; shards of sensation that feed the imagination of a visual artist. By the age of twelve, Sargent was sketching the artistic and scenic wonders of Italy. He received his first systematic art instruction in Florence but left in 1874 for training that one could obtain then only in Paris. In 1878 he made his first visit to the United States, where he claimed his American citizenship, and then embarked on his first professional painting trip to Italy. 

Sargent sought new subject matter in the peasant life of Naples and Capri. Head of a Capri Girl (1878), represents one of the intriguing local models that Sargent loved to paint. In 1880, he took a studio in Venice. Street in Venice (1880-82) is one of Sargent's first major Italian works and one of the most significant of his early views of Venice. The painting exemplifies Sargent's attraction to the lesser-known parts and people of Venice and his interest in realistically depicting the gritty physical details of the Venetian environment. But in Paris, portraits were driving Sargent's career. With the exception on one subsequent visit, Sargent did not return to Italy until he had established himself as the leading portrait painter in the English-speaking world.

In 1897, he came back to Italy. By now he had received a prestigious commission for a mural at the Boston Public Library, and his career had ascended in a perfect trajectory from genre painter to society portrait painter to history painter and muralist. The following year, Sargent was again in Venice, where he painted Mrs. Ralph Curtis. Mrs. Ralph Curtis (1898) not only represents the enticing glamour of some of Sargent's most privileged clients and friends -- Mrs. Curtis was the wife of his wealthy cousin whose family lived in the elaborate Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal -- but also is the only full-length formal portrait Sargent painted in Italy. (left: John Singer Sargent, A Street in Venice,  c. 1880-82, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA)

Of all the places in Italy Sargent traveled Venice had perhaps the largest share of his attention. The city fascinated Sargent and was well suited to the watercolor medium in which he worked most often in Italy. His use of vivid colors, brushwork that varied from soft and fluid, to bold and dashing, and an overwhelming sense of light and air characterize his Italian scenes like Scuola di San Rocco (c. 1903) and rank Sargent as one of the finest watercolorists of all time. 

Sargent always cast a fresh eye on the regular tourist subject. In Venice, where the city's quintessential sight is of domes and towers melting into the light, Sargent looked at doors and foundations. He generally leaves enough detail for us to identify the building-but only for someone truly knowledgeable of Venice. His are never tourist views, a remarkable achievement in a city processed by artists for the tourist market for two hundred years. 

Each summer Sargent returned to Italy where he painted landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits. In Italy, Sargent was at home. His landscapes are populated mainly by family and friends. He makes visible the vital hold that Italy had on all American visitors -- not simply the abstract ideal of history, but rather the realm of the sensual, the special qualities of light, the attention to uncomplicated pleasures of the table, the balmy air. The Italian locales Sargent found himself drawn to were never exactly those in the guidebooks: at Lake Garda, he found a small fishing village, San Vigilio, on the unfashionable side of the lake; in Florence he avoided the Pitti Palace and instead painted the Boboli Gardens behind it; in the Alps, he stepped well off the beaten tract. At the very edge of Italy, high in the Alps, Sargent posed the young men and women among his family and friends in exotic costumes, toying with the conventions of both portraiture and exoticism. These are perhaps his most extraordinary and daring works, short of his virtually abstract landscape paintings. Dolce Far Niente (c.1907) is one of the greatest examples of Sargent's interest in exotic themes. The cashmere shawl seen in Woman Reclining (1911) was the luxurious Eastern garment Sargent most frequently used to costume his female relatives so that he might study the shawl's remarkable drape, folds, and patterns and especially the female figure in repose. 

Sargent's Italian landscapes generally evoke the world of people, a social and sensual matrix. Even when the scene is devoid of figures and almost abstract, he captures a world of sensation as it is registered not just by the eyes, but by the body as a whole: light as warmth, color as taste and texture. This is one reason why Italy is such a responsive subject, enhancing all of Sargent's best qualities-and the reason why Italy remained a part of Sargent from the moment of his birth.

Sargent and Italy will begin with Sargent's works from Capri and Venice and then present works from the Alps, including his well-known cashmere series. Visitors will then view works created in Carrara and San Vigilio, watercolors and oils depicting gardens in Tuscany and Rome, as well as paintings of art and architecture. There is then a return to works created in Venice and the exhibition closes with portraits created while the artist was vacationing in Italy.

This exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent complements LACMA's permanent collection, which includes several outstanding works by the artist. Most notable is Sargent's monumental portrait Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son, Livingston Davis (1890). Also from the permanent collection, and included in Sargent and Italy, is Rose-Marie Ormond Reading in a Cashmere Shawl (c. 1908-12), a watercolor given to LACMA by the Art Museum Council in 1972. Paintings by John Singer Sargent and other important American artists can be viewed on the plaza level of the Ahmanson Building.

Sargent and Italy is accompanied by a beautifully designed, full-color catalogue edited and introduction by LACMA curator Bruce Robertson, with essays by Jane Dini, Ilene Susan Fort, Stephanie L. Herdrich, R.W.B. Lewis, and Richard Ormond.

Sargent and Italy was co-curated by Elaine Kilmurray, Richard Ormond, and LACMA Curator Bruce Robertson. This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Ferrara Arte.


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy the following photos:

In October, 2007 Barbara Hazeltine photographed scenes in Venice and Tuscany. All photos © Barbara Hazeltine 2007

(above: Grand Canal in Venice, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


(above: Gondoliers in Venice, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


(above: Ponto Vecchio on Arno River in Florence, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


(above: View of Ponto Vecchio and Florence, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


(above: View of Florence, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)



(above: Tuscan Countryside I, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


(above: Tuscan Countryside II, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)


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rev. 1/8/08

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