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John Singer Sargent, Excellent Buy
on May 7, 2010
My copy is a well-made albeit slim and glue-bound paperback of 88 pages. It's 10.25 inches wide by 11 inches tall. ISBN 0-8230-4641-9, published by Watson-Guptill Publications in 1976 in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, no doubt reflecting the superb collections of Sargent watercolors in those institutions. This book, written by highly regarded art scholar, the late Donelson Hoopes, is just one of an ambitious Watson-Guptill series of more than a dozen titles by various authors, treating different artists. For example, there's also one on Winslow Homer watercolors by the same expert / author. Each in the series (I own several) hews to a common canonical format of an excellent short text followed by 32 well-annotated, very good color reproductions. In this case, these include some of Sargent's best-known, even iconic images such as "Mountain Stream", "Pomegranates" and "Escutcheon of Charles V", by some lights perhaps the best watercolors ever.
Frankly, the whole Watson-Guptill series, if closely studied, could constitute a quick university-level course in art history. Don't be misled; despite the publisher being Watson Guptill, this is not another how-to hobby art boiler relating the kind of brushes Sargent might have used, how he could have held his brushes, etc. There is no mention of stretching paper. This is a book about Sargent's watercolors, not about how to copy them. The some dozen pages of text at the front offer an excellent synopsis of Sargent's art and career. Then, each plate's notes expand on that theme.
The quality of the reproductions is, of course, not excellent. This series of books was a relatively modest undertaking in the 1970s and the plates cannot be expected to be the very best technically possible even at that time. However, the plates are in fact at least very good. An indication of this can be seen in the reds, for example in "Mountain Fire", where here the reds are clearly seen. I've seen reproductions in other books where there is no red, no fire in "Mountain Fire" and one must wonder then what Sargent was thinking. I'd recommend looking at each of the 32 plates for any reds and for the other primary hues as well. And in fact, while I'm on a roll, I'd recommend simultaneously passing your index finger over each plate, as you view it, tracing, guiding your eyes' attention. Because your hand is connected to your brain, you will be surprised at how much more mindfully you can appreciate the images. The experience should be noticeably richer.
Without reservation I recommend this thin but inexpensive addition for anyone's Sargent library. I have purchased several copies as gifts for others.