John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)
Signed and located 'John S. Sargent - Lake of Garda' [sic] bottom left; also titled verso, watercolor and pencil on paper laid down to board
Sheet size: 16 x 20 3/4 in. (40.5 x 52.5cm.).
Executed in 1913.
Scott & Fowles, New York, New York.
Collection of Mrs. Ralph J. King, Cleveland, Ohio (circa 1920).
By descent in the family.
Private Collection, Ohio.
Sotheby's, New York, sale of April 11, 2013, lot 75.
Acquired directly from the above sale.
Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York.
Acquired directly from the above in 2013.
Private Collection, Virginia.
"Second International Exhibition of Watercolor Paintings," The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, April 15 - May 21, 1922.
"Fourth Exhibition of Watercolors and Pastels," The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, 1927.
Like many fellow American artists of his generation, John Singer Sargent spent a considerable part of his career in Europe. Unlike most of them however, Sargent was not a mere expatriate tourist visiting country after country, but a true cosmopolitan, who befriended the locals, and could pass for one of them. As H. Barbara Weinberg and Stephanie L Herdrich rightfully put it: "Sargent was born to American parents in Italy, learned to paint like a Spaniard in France, and lived in England for most of his life." Over the years, and throughout his many European peregrinations, Italy held a special place for Sargent. Born in Florence in 1856, he spent a considerable time in the Tuscan city (where he sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti between 1870 and 1873) as well as Rome, Venice, and the Italian Alps, where he would spend most of the summers with his parents.
At the turn of the century Sargent rose to fame thanks to his finely rendered oil portraits (which he mostly completed in London or Paris), and until WWI made travel impossible, the artist took annual vacations with a group of family and friends at the end of every summer. For three to four months, the group would visit warm rural regions where Sargent used to sojourn as a child, including Spain, or the Northern Italian Lake district. There, Sargent could indulge his passion for plein-air painting, recording the picturesque buildings and the often-inhabited landscapes surrounding him, as well as soaking in the overall warm glow of the southern light. Instead of oils, the artist would favor watercolors – a light and portable medium that enabled him to sketch ‘on the go,' as inspiration struck him. Sargent's watercolors reveal another facet of the artist's working method, a more relaxed, loose brushwork with an impressionist feel that contrasts with Sargent's formal portraiture practice. Intended as independent works in their own right, the watercolors from this time period are all signed, and some were later shown in major exhibitions, receiving much acclaim. As recently explained, this may have been part of a calculated plan by the artist, to "create a market demand for his watercolors that allowed him to reduce his portrait activity without having to relinquish his position of priority in the artistic spotlight."
In the autumn of 1913, while strolling along the shore of the very touristic site of Lake Garda – the biggest lake in all Italy, Sargent discovered the small charming fishing village of San Vigilio. Located on the unfashionable side of the lake, at the foothills of the Alps, the village was void of inconvenient tourists, which enabled Sargent to explore its picturesque streets and coves at leisure. In the present work, the viewer is invited to look across the lake to the farther shore, where two washerwomen appear to be hard at work under the shade of a large white tent. The scene is marked by a certain lushness. A variety of bushes, trees and grass mix-in together while, in the distance, a line of cypress trees are dramatically silhouetted against a creamy white sky. The work reveals Sargent's interest in color and light; it also shows his mastery at using watercolor's inherent transparency and spontaneity to best suggest the transient effects of a warm summer day.
Although it may resemble earlier pastoral works Sargent did in the region, the work offers a new, deconstructed perspective on the landscape. Here, the artist paints in a nearly abstract way, applying pigment broadly onto the sheet of paper, ignoring details and above all, refusing a conventional, broad vista. Instead, he adopts a close vantage point, ignoring most of the sky and directing his gaze downward, towards the rocky edge of the lake, and the wonderful ripples of the water. This fascination for the mesmerizing effects of the sun onto the surface of the lake is not new: Sargent in fact experienced it during 1904-1908, when he visited Val d'Aosta, further north. Here the sun seems to dance on the water, which is reflecting various brilliant hues of color, ranging from deep blues and dark greens towards the edge of the lake, to light hints of orange and yellow in the center of the composition. The overall economy of shapes, paired with the wonderful squiggles in the water all demonstrate Sargent's gift and sprezzatura – a studied nonchalance that contributes to the immediacy of the scene – as if time were floating. In the end, the work appears to encapsulate the words of Sargent's early biographer, Evan Charteris: "To live with Sargent's water-colours [sic] is to live with sunshine captured and held."
The present work is included in Volume 8 of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff (Yale University Press).
Sold for $87,500 (buyer's premium included)