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Visit Italy with John Singer Sargent at the Denver Art Museum

Daily Staff Report
Special to the Daily"Scuola di San Rocco," c.1903, by John Singer Sargent. Watercolor; 14 x 20 in. Private collection, London.
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Float down the canals of Venice, hike the marble quarries of Carrara, breathe the crisp air of the Italian Alps and take in the scents of Tuscan and Roman gardens, all in Denver. The Denver Art Museum’s John Singer Sargent exhibition is on display through Sept. 21 and depicts a unique perspective of Italy’s people, landscapes, architecture and lifestyle.

“Sargent and Italy” showcases more than 65 oil and watercolor paintings from Sargent’s career, but focuses on the artist’s fascination with Italy. Denver is the final stop on a three-city tour that originated in Italy at Ferrara Arte Museum and traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art earlier this year.

“Sargent was one of the most acclaimed painters of the Gilded Age” said Dr. Timothy J. Standring, chief curator at the Denver Art Museum. “The freshness of many of the works in Sargent and Italy is extraordinary since a number of them have never been exhibited before, nor have his Italian works been viewed as an ensemble as they are in this exhibition.”



Prior to entering the first of the six galleries, visitors to “Sargent and Italy” will have the opportunity to spend time with Sargent’s “Mrs. Ralph Curtis,” one of Sargent’s most famous portraits. This painting commands the opening room and greets visitors as they enter the first gallery.

Although “Mrs. Ralph Curtis,” who was a woman of high society, serves as the introduction to the exhibition, a nearby quote reads, “No more portraits. I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another, especially of the upper classes. Above all, I must get abroad to see the sunlight and everything that is to be seenS” signaling Sargent’s departure from commissioned portraits to landscapes and figurative paintings done for his own pleasure.



“What makes this exhibition so incredibly special,” explained Standring, “is that it is the first ever dedicated to the “informal’ Sargent, who simply loved the act of painting out in the open, using his friends, his favorite viewpoints, and other beloved subject matter in many of these compositions.”

The first gallery of the exhibition highlights Sargent’s early work from 1872 through 1888 portraying Venice and Capri. Works such as “A Street in Venice” and “Rosina Capri” depict ordinary people and casual scenes of everyday life.

The next two galleries take visitors along on Sargent’s travels to the marble quarries of Carrara, the countryside of San Vigilio and to the Italian Alps. Viewers experience the tension and activity in works such as “Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries at Carrara,” and explore the peaceful countryside in “A Winding Road” and “Cypress Trees.” Sargent spent the warmest months of the year in the Alps painting works such as “Val d’Aosta,” which portrays the jagged boulders that make up the mountain landscape. Gallery three also offers a glimpse into Sargent’s life through paintings such as “Dolce Far Niente,” where he painted friends and family who spent time with him during summer holiday. A map of Italy in gallery three shows where Sargent spent time during his travels.



Galleries four and five present portraits and Italian gardens in both oil and watercolor. These portraits were not commissioned pieces; rather again they were of Sargent’s friends and family. Gallery five explores dazzling gardens and Italian architecture and sculpture. Sargent would often use statues or architectural elements to give structure and a focal point to his garden paintings.

“The incredible verve and delicate touch he gives to his oils and watercolors is the primary reason why he is ranked as one of the finest watercolorists of all time,” said Standring.

Visitors walk through a resting and reading area reminiscent of an Italian piazza on their way to the final gallery. The walls have a scrubbed-paint effect creating a textured and weathered look. A fountain, benches, chairs and cafe tables fill the area evoking the feeling of being outdoors. While in the piazza, visitors have the opportunity to lounge in chairs at tables filled with catalogs, travel books and works of novelists such as Henry James, who were contemporaries of Sargent. Visitors can create a souvenir postcard inspired by Sargent’s paintings to mail to a friend or take home with them.

“Sargent and Italy” comes full circle in the last gallery with Sargent’s late work, including intimate views of Venice’s iconic canals in pieces such as “Scuola di San Rocco” and “The Rialto.”

Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, to expatriate American parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent and Mary Newbold Singer. As the eldest surviving child, he spent much of his childhood traveling throughout Europe with his parents and two younger sisters. He was highly influenced by his numerous visits to the cultural institutions of Europe. He was also fluent in French, Italian, German and English.

By the age of 12, Sargent was exhibiting artistic talent through sketching. “[John] is getting old enough to enjoy and appreciate the beauties of nature and art, which are lavishly displayed in these old lands,” said his mother. “He sketches quite nicely and has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.”

At age 18, Sargent did go to Paris to attend Ecole des Beaux-Arts for formal art training.

Sargent would travel the world in search of subjects. Although Sargent is most famous for his portraits of members of international high society, he often traveled to Italy to paint his favorite subjects. The works he created there were intended primarily for his own enjoyment, rather than done on commission.

Sargent would make his way through impressionism, naturalism and realism, stretching the limits of convention by challenging the viewer and himself. He sought out elements in the environment, spurred by strange and curious ideas. In Venice, he continued to push beyond rules of composition. On many occasions he would simply plant himself wherever he was and produce whatever met his vision. Sargent once said, “I paint objects, not views”

The Denver Art Museum is located at 13th Avenue and Acoma Street in downtown Denver. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday until 9 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday and most major holidays. For more information, visit http://www.denverartmuseum.org or call (720) 865-5000.


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