The most sought after portrait artist of the Edwardian age had a sideline as a travel watercolourist. Dulwich stage the first show of these accomplished works for almost a century.
Although painted in the early 20th century, these 80 paintings, composed by John Singer Sargent while on holiday in Europe, surely belong to an even earlier time. There is no bold fauvist or expressionist use of colour, no cubist or futurist fragmentation, no post-impressionist obsession with form or myth.
Small wonder then, that his watercolours have before now been dismissed as travel souvenirs; and in fact they do express a tourist’s enthusiasm for architecture, local colour, Mediterranean light, and so on. Watercolour is a quick medium and Sargent would conjure with it en plein air; the perfect way to capture the fleeting pleasures of an overseas trip.
Besides, what is so wrong with a souvenir? These watercolours still have the power to transport their viewers to Venice or the Alps; a quality undimmed by age.
One might say that, by sticking with the realist approach of his hugely successful portraits, he showed great resistance to the vagaries of fashion. Hold that thought, if it lets you get more from this appealing show. Whether a guilty pleasure or a simple one, Sargent: The Watercolours has the potential to be a joy.