John Singer Sargent Watercolors Dazzle with the Light of a Man at Ease

John Singer Sargent Watercolors
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Through January 20, 2014

Corfu Cottage
This review was originally published on the UMass History Department blog.

I know someone who teaches at a private school because it supports his folk music career, a yoga teacher who used to pay the bills through editing, and a landscape painter whose paychecks come from illustration work. As songwriter Charlie King once put it, “Our lives are more than our work/And our work is more than our jobs.” Keep that in mind when you venture to Boston to see John Singer Sargent’s watercolors.

And venture forth you should–there are nearly 100 works he produced between 1902-11 and there’s not a dud in the lot. These images are John Singer Sargent as few of us think of him. Sargent (1856-1925) was renowned as the portrait artist of choice for the Gilded Age elite, and small wonder–few artists of his day matched his eye or technique in oil and few in all of art history had his mastery of painting white on white or black on black. So good was Sargent that our mental images of late 19th century upper crust Boston are largely conjured from paintings hung upon the walls of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

As sublime as the oils are, the MFA’s watercolor show is a breath of fresh air. Several forces collided that led Sargent away from formal portraiture and freed him to produce the bold gouaches, washes, and watercolors on display. First, as in our time, he who is in fashion one season is bound to be out the next. As Gilded Age society waned at the fin de siècle, so too did demand for Sargent’s services. He was, in short, yesterday’s painter. But a painter he remained–one who mastered the craft of the past and was vitally interested in the new. His oils occasionally showed familiarity with Impressionism, but his watercolors embody his love of the form. With fewer commissions that he had to paint, Sargent produced things that were personally meaningful.

Second, and more importantly, Sargent was as bored with society as it had become with him. He moved easily among American elites, but he was trained in Europe and was, in many ways, more continental than Back Bay Boston. The official story is that he was a bachelor, but he was probably gay. He certainly spent a lot of time abroad and was rumored to let his hair down considerably when outside of Victorian parlors. We see only echoes of Sargent’s audacious side in America–notably his scandalous Madame X  (1889), but most of the offerings in the MFA come from his overseas sojourns: the watery blues of Venice, the stark contrasts of Palestine, the blinding sunlight of Corfu, muscled quarry workers in Italy, the lush mountains of Switzerland….

Portuguese Boats
Call it reverse Madame X in that what he produced in Europe is only occasionally controlled. In a superb video at the end of the exhibition, painter Monika de Vries seeks to reproduce Sargent’s Portuguese Boats and argues that he worked quickly and impressionistically, as if he were a man freeing his hand and his soul. Forget the dignified drawing rooms of his oils; here we see louche gondoliers lounging in their boats, bold Bedouins glaring full-face frontward, carefree males plopped lazily outside a government building, and stone cutters smoking and enjoying their lunch. We get the idea that Sargent was probably more comfortable with this lot than the business class of Beacon Hill.

Above all there is the riot of color. Forget white dresses against a white background. In his watercolors Sargent gives us white laundry drying above a green lawn–except that lawn is splashed with pinks, yellows, browns, blues, purples, and mauves. There is a magnificent sun-dappled whitewashed cottage from Corfu in which the spidery shadows are just about every color except white.

Toward the end of his life Sargent had a last Boston hurrah–the stunning murals painted for the Boston Public Library. These too are better known than his watercolors, but once you see those, you’re likely to conclude that the happiest period of Sargent’s life was the one in which he was out of the public limelight and free to follow his muses rather than his commissions.

Rob Weir


Mist Covered Mountains Showcases New England Celtic Talent

This Distant Shore
* * * 1/2 

Mist Covered Mountains is Québecois/Celtic fiddler Donna Hébert; her daughter, vocalist Molly Hébert-Wilson; and peripatetic guitarist/vocalist Max Cohen. Western Massachusetts locals will recall that Molly had an amazing voice when she was a tween; as a mature young woman, there’s added depth, luster, and sparkle. The Distant Shore features a few well-traveled Celtic songs, including “Fear án Bháta” and “The Parting Glance,” each very well done. Especially noteworthy is “Katie Cruel” in which Hébert-Wilson’s voice punches through a muscular arrangement in which Cohen channels Bert Jansch, and Hébert’s fiddle sizzles. Even better is Hébert-Wilson’s gorgeous and sensitive cover of Richard Berman’s “The Gifts.” Cohen takes the lead vocal on three tracks, including the hilarious hidden track “Hamster Heaven.” Make sure you don’t remove the CD until that one plays! Pioneer Valley residents can catch a CD release party at the Montague Community Hall on November 30.

Rob Weir


Magic from the Shetlands by FULLSCEILIDH

500 Sessions
Spreefix 002

Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag is a mouthful for an ensemble name, but then again, it’s a pretty big group: seven fiddlers plus four additional musicians. Based in the Shetland Islands, Fullsceilidh features regional tunes, which means a blend of islands, Scottish mainland, and Scandinavian traditions. Think a more robust version of Fiddlers’ Bid, the seven-piece lineup of which Fullsceilidh’s Maurice Henderson is also a member. Unlike Da’ Bid–as Shetlanders like to call it–Fullsceilidh, has in the past, cleaved closer to home, though this release finds them venturing off islands to capture tunes from Liz Carroll, Martin Tourish (Altan), English dance tunes, and even some American old-time fiddle tunes. There are also selections that briefly feature instruments other than the fiddle, but whether it’s a local tune, an import, or a bit of guitar picking, Fullsceilidh renders them according to custom. This generally means giving tunes an orchestral treatment in which the musicians play in synch with each other rather than engaging in layering, harmonizing, or counterpoint. The tunes on the new recording are at once robust and full, yet communal in feel to the sessions playing invoked in the title. Solos are short and serve mainly as bridges back to the whole. There’s nothing simple about any of this, but Fullsceilidh makes everything sound effortless. Don’t worry about the pronunciation; it’s time for the world to discover these folks.   Rob Weir

PS: If you want to try pronouncing it, here is an approximation: Full-scale-é  Spelem-man-slog

And here they are in (considerable) action.