Sargent never saw himself as a portraitist to the exclusion of landscape and mural painting and although he had worked in watercolour from childhood, it was in the 1900s that his interest in the medium began to flourish, primarily to satisfy 'his driving need of unhampered personal expression' (Martin Hardie). Sargent began to grow weary with the task of painting the portraits of the rich and famous and the limitations imposed by his commissions and turned with joy to the freedom of watercolour, which became, after 1900 almost his favourite medium.
Sargent was an inveterate traveller and the present watercolour was probably executed while Sargent was staying at the Villa Longa in Valldemossa, Mallorca where he staying with Eliza Wedgewood and his sister Emily in the autumn of 1908. They arrived on 26 September and after spending a night at a primitive local inn, found a flat in the Villa Longa with the help of three resident Spanish artists and remained there until late November. It was during this holiday that he painted Mosquito Nets (Ormond family) and the watercolour of Miss Eliza Wedgewood and Miss Sargent sketching, 1908 (Tate Gallery).
It was Sargent's usual practice to set off early in the morning and climb up precipitious paths in search of a suitable pitch, while his Italian valet carried his equipment. 'His speed and accuracy of execution were no less remarkable here than in the studio, whether he was painting in oil or watercolour. He had a marked preference for certain subjects: boulder strewn slopes; turbulent mountain streams, distant panoramas ... and pine trees.' (Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, drawings and watercolours, London, 1970, p. 68). However, his later watercolours are primarily vehicles for statements about colour and light, the relationship between form and texture, rather than the depiction of picturesque places and panoramic views. In the present watercolour the artist has sought to capture the effect of direct sunlight on the rocks and the hazy view in the distance as the heat of the day builds up. Adrian Stokes, who spent two summers painting with Sargent writes of his watercolours 'invariably brilliant in execution, they usually record, with the utmost directness, something that had excited his admiration, or appealed to his artistic intelligence. That may have been the clearly defined and exquisite edge of some rare object; or the way in which a dark thing, when opposed to vivid light, is invaded by it and loses local colour, or the change that seems to occur in the colour of things along the edge where they meet ... He perceived with surpassing accuracy, the most subtle relations of tones and colours...'
As regards Sargent's working methods, Martin Hardie specified that as a general rule Sargent worked on damp paper, applied a layer of pure colour wash to the paper that spread to the edge, and then worked rapidly, using Chinese white when it was expedient. Hardie felt that Sargent, probably more than other contemporary watercolourist 'knew the value of highlights obtained by leaving the white of the paper'. In the present watercolour Sargent has used the light reflecting qualities of white paper to depict the strong mediterranean sunlight reflecting off the rocks, the shadows are painted with great economy of brushstroke in a blueish tone and the acidic yellow pigment is reminiscent of his alpine watercolours.
For Sargent, his work in watercolour was a serious endeavour. He was elected a Member of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1904 and his intention to preserve his watercolour legacy was clearly illustrated by, from 1909 onwards, the sale of watercolours to American Institutions such as The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston (1912) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1915). The present watercolour was one of the group of eighty-six shown in a joint exhibition with Edward Darley Boit at Knoedlers, in 1909 and bought by the Brooklyn Museum for $20,000, a number of which were subsequently deaccessioned in 1926, also overseen by Knoedlers.
The present watercolour, in exceptionally fresh condition, was executed when the artist's interest in the medium was at its highest. He captures the beauty of the island with confident, bravura brushwork and bold areas of white paper laid bare. He reveals his excited response to the wonder of nature and shows his joy in the expressive possibilities of the medium of watercolour. 'There are few artists who have responded with greater visual excitement to the world of light and form ... Sargent's watercolours obey the requirement of art in the most important way: they remain fresh forever, they endure' (Donelson F. Hoopes, Sargent Watercolours, New York, 1970, p. 20).
The present watercolour is to be be included in volume VII (forthcoming) of the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff.