John Singer Sargent painted watercolors most of his life, but until about 1900 he did so only fitfully and, as he said, to "make the best of an emergency."1 By about 1900 Sargent had tired of formal portraiture. "No more paughtraits," he wrote his friend Ralph Curtis. "I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes."2 He could never give up portraiture entirely, despite his hope, but he did, as Richard Ormond has nicely put, go "off duty"3 to paint other subjects and work in other mediums.
Of those subjects, Venice was his favorite, and watercolor was the medium he favored to paint it. Sargent had visited Venice before 1900, of course; some twenty years earlier he had done a beautiful series (in oil) of Venetian street scenes and interiors. But from about 1900 to 1913, when "swarms of smart Londoners" managed to drive him away,4 he visited Venice almost yearly, and he painted it most often by far in watercolor (the majority of Sargent's late watercolors are Venetian). Sargent's earlier oils were painted on solid ground and depicted the "Venice in Venice that...others seemed never to have perceived" that Whistler had discovered slightly earlier,5 the Venice of back streets, small squares, and interiors that tourists seldom saw and artists seldom depicted. His later Venetian watercolors are painted from "gondola perspective"6 as he floated through the city's canals (they often include the prow of his gondola to make that point of view explicit), looking at its buildings and depicting its major architectural monuments and public spaces. They are painted not only with the seemingly effortless fluency that characterizes Sargent's work in every medium, but with a fluidity -- a wetness both of appearance and of the process by which Sargent painted them -- that befits the consistently watery perspective from which Sargent observed Venice, the "perpetual fluidity beneath"7 him as he floated effortlessly through the city.
In depicting figures, Gondoliers' Siesta is something of a rarity among Sargent's later Venetian watercolors (as is the fact, too, that it is dated, 1905). And instead of the clear blue skies and vibrantly coruscating light of most of Sargent's Venetian watercolors, Gondoliers' Siesta is, with its overcast sky, more subdued, more languid, shadowy, and even mysterious. In all these respects it recalls, more than most of Sargent's Venetian watercolors, the dark streets and alleys and slightly sinister occupants of his first Venetian series of the 1880s.
Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Senior curator of American and British paintings
6. The term is Tony Tanner's, Venice Desired (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 173, apropos Henry James: "perpetual architecture above you and perpetual fluidity beneath" (Italian Hours [New York, 1958], 19 - 20). It is cited in Donna Seldin Janis, "Venice," in Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscape (New York, 1997), 186.