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Private landscapes of a famous portraitist

February 08, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Americans, especially during the republic's first 200 years, have tended to regard great art -- real, honest-to-goodness, masterpiece-caliber art -- as mostly something made long ago in Europe by people now safely dead. There are many reasons for this perception. They include the nation's nostalgia for its European roots and a gut sense that great art is cosmopolitan, while most of America is not. But whatever the cause, no one benefited more from the belief than John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent was the most urbane American artist at the end of the 19th century. He made his reputation as a lavish portrait painter. The luxurious Grand Manner style was transformed by his brush from a showy presentation mode familiar to the British manor house into the latest status symbol of Gilded Age society. Born of expatriate parents in Florence, seat of the Italian Renaissance; schooled in Paris, where an obsession with the tonal dynamics of Velazquez held sway; established in studios in London, where the bravura Grand Manner flourished more than a century before, Sargent claimed just the right Old World pedigree.

He also had the talent. When the thought of artistic anointment came to mind, Sargent was precisely what the Boston Brahmin, the New York stage actress and the Chicago socialite imagined. The "Van Dyck of our times," as French sculptor Auguste Rodin called him, Sargent had portrait patrons lining up -- on both sides of the Atlantic.

What did he do in his spare time? That, in a way, is the peculiar subject of "Sargent in Italy," a pleasant if finally confusing exhibition newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Modest in size, it enjoys a leisurely installation in overly large galleries in the Anderson Building.

The show was organized by LACMA curator Bruce Robertson and guest curators Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond (a Sargent descendant). It concludes with the sole Grand Manner portrait Sargent is said to have painted during regular sojourns to the country of his birth -- a full-length figure of his cousin's wife, heiress to the Colt firearms fortune. But most of its 46 paintings and 30 watercolors are landscapes, genre scenes, architectural studies and other subject paintings made during summer vacations spent in Venice, Naples, Capri and elsewhere in Italy. They're the idylls of the portrait king.

Sargent traveled to Italy often in the 1870s and 1880s. Around 1895, the trip became an annual excursion. Italy was his getaway, his Palm Springs or Hamptons.

That's one reason for the wealth of watercolors, which he increasingly favored as a diversion from oil paint. Watercolor, which Sargent learned as a child from his mother and executed with incredible facility, was the perfect pastime medium -- portable, quick, ideal for the workaholic who never quite relaxed, even while on holiday.

Object renderings in Sargent's watercolors range from acutely detailed to sketchiness that teeters on the brink of total abstraction, where colored strokes invent forms rather than describing them. (Six from the nearly 80 Italian watercolors in the Brooklyn Museum's great Sargent collection are on view.) They record light and atmosphere in a manner every bit as bravura as his most elaborate portrait. Yet, however evanescent, the grandeur of these watercolors resides precisely in their dependence on matter as the ultimate reality.

Sargent was a materialist. He painted things, not airiness or spirit. When luminous atmosphere was important, it was always as a reflection off Venetian canals, stone foundations or mountain boulders. In a Sargent landscape, you don't find big expanses of sky.

He almost never publicly displayed or sold his landscapes, but several marvelous examples in the show declare their significance to him. "Val D'Aosta: A Man Fishing" (1907) is cropped the way a Kodak snapshot might be. Seen from above, the close-up view excludes everything but grass, the stream and two lazily reclining bodies, one chopped off above the waist and the other at the shoulders. At the center is the fisherman's bare foot, dangling in cool water. It's a painting flush with the physical sense of touch.

Several Alpine mountain scenes look closely at jagged rock, with just a sliver of gray or blue across the top. A view of the famous marble quarries at Carrara is a cascade of off-white stone, into which two men virtually disappear. Raking light skips across the water, boats, stone jetty and shore in a picture of a fishing town at Lake Garda, but sky is nowhere to be seen. Matter is the final reality.

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