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Sargent 11 9 1989 Irf Detail Sargent 11 9 1989 Irf Detail

Hidden Materials in John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors

From the Conservation Lab


While John Singer Sargent is most widely known for his oil portraits of august men and women in fashionable interiors, he cultivated a love of painting outdoors from an early age. As a boy he recorded his family’s European travels in sketchbooks, and as his talent and repertoire grew, he acquired numerous accoutrements such as portable easels, sketching umbrellas, rigid pads of paper, and compact palettes of watercolors that allowed him to paint multiple pictures during one outing, even in challenging conditions. In fact, Sargent was an official war artist for Britain during World War I and spent four months on the front painting and sketching.

Henry Tonks. “John Singer Sargent Painting,” 1918. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The John Singer Sargent Archive, gift of Jan and Warren Adelson, 2014.2252.

A fellow war artist, Henry Tonks, painted this watercolor caricature of Sargent in 1918, depicting the artist clothed in army greens and shielded by a sketching umbrella that Sargent camouflaged for the purpose. The painting (held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and not a part of this exhibition) gives new meaning to challenging conditions—and shows us a glimpse of Sargent’s life apart from glamorous portraits.

In preparation for the current exhibition John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age, Art Institute curators, conservators, and conservation scientists examined some of Sargent’s paintings and investigated his less obvious materials, finding evidence that provides valuable insight into the artist’s working process. 

A Newsworthy Surprise
Sargent captured hundreds of landscapes in watercolor as he traveled across Europe and North America. In 1908 he painted Tarragona Terrace and Garden when he visited the eastern coast of Spain. Seated in the arcade of Tarragona’s cathedral, Sargent made a quick study of its columns.

John Singer Sargent

While he generally preferred to leave parts of the paper bare to delineate highlights, the foliage in the upper left corner of this picture was painted using a different technique. Here it appears that Sargent simply laid in a mass of greens and browns and then returned with an opaque, zinc white paint to create his highlights. In order to fully conceal the dark colors underneath, Sargent had to use thick dabs of white as if he were making a correction in oils.

Sargent often made multiple paintings in one day and would interleave his paintings with sheets of newspaper for protection as he carried them. He did this with Tarragona Terrace and Garden, perhaps not realizing that the thickly applied areas of paint had not dried completely when he laid the newspaper on its surface. As an unintended consequence, fragments from a Spanish newspaper stuck to the painting, remnants of Sargent’s panting process that survive today.

Sargent 11 9 1989 Irf Detail
An enhanced detail of a reflected infrared (IR) photograph, which improves the legibility of the printed text in the embedded newspaper fragments. Infrared reflectography (IRR) is a technique that can enhance the visibility of carbon-based drawing materials beneath colored paints.

In normal light these tiny pieces of newsprint are barely noticeable, but they stand out in an infrared photograph, which makes some of the Spanish text almost legible.

A photomicrograph of one of the newspaper fragments taken with a high-powered microscope.

Wax in a Watercolor
Nearly 10 years after he painted Tarragona Terrace and Garden, Sargent made another series of stunning architectural studies while visiting his friends Charles and James Deering in Florida. Sargent was drawn to Vizcaya, the lavish estate that James had recently built, not least of all because it reminded him of the Italian landscapes and gardens that he loved to paint.

John Singer Sargent

Analytical instruments in the conservation science lab at the Art Institute can help answer a lot of questions about artists’ materials. In the case of this work, scientists sought more information about a soft, translucent material found in discrete areas on its surface. The material was analyzed and determined to be a wax, which Sargent used as a “resist”—meaning that he marked the paper with a transparent material that would repel the water-based paint and leave highlights in the composition.

A photomicrograph illustrating how Sargent’s application of wax (the translucent/white material) to the paper’s surface created small islands of bare paper that repelled the blue watercolor painted on top.

Analysis also revealed that the wax is a type called spermaceti, a product obtained from sperm whales and a major commercial product of the whaling industry. In Sargent’s time this wax was commonly used to make candles. Finding it here helps to explain Sargent’s process—because spermaceti is softer than other common waxes such as beeswax, it would have been the logical choice for use as a drawing material.

To learn more about Sargent’s process and materials come visit John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age in the Art Institute’s Regenstein Hall through September 30, and check out the technical essay in the exhibition catalogue.

—Mary Broadway, associate conservator of prints and drawings


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