Although he was renowned for his portraits, John Singer Sargent's most innovative works were completed outside his studio, during his travels to the European countryside. It was here that he felt most inspired and at ease, resulting in some of his most intimate and compelling compositions. During his stays in the Alps in the summers of 1900 to 1914, Sargent produced a body of watercolors celebrated for their freedom, intimacy and modernity.
Painted during his August 1912 visit to the resort of Abriès in the French Alps, Ladies in the Shade: Abriès is exemplary of Sargent's work from this period and demonstrates the artist at the height of his abilities. Here he depicts two of his travel companions taking respite from the summer heat and relaxing under a tree. The central focus of the watercolor is a woman in a beautifully rendered, white dress and hat. She has turned her head and is portrayed in profile and behind her is another woman with her back turned to the viewer, thoroughly immersed in an activity. The women's lack of direct engagement with the viewer gives the sense that they have been caught unawares and imbues the work with a sense of intimacy and spontaneity that is in stark contrast to the contrived air of Sargent's commissioned portraits. This sense of familiarity is further underscored by Sargent's close cropping of the scene, a modern approach in which the skirt of the woman's dress flows off the sheet.
Over the years, many critics have noted Sargent's seemingly effortless ability to paint a wide range of subjects in watercolor. Evan Charteris, the artist's friend and early biographer, remarked on the startling sense of spontaneity in these works: "They have a happy air of impromptu," he wrote, "of the artist having come upon a scene at a particular moment and there and then translated it into paint. He set his face against anything like 'picture-making;' his watercolors are fragmentary--pieces of the visible world broken off because they appealed to his eye. His power is displayed in the supremacy of his drawing, the opulence of his colour, the skill of his statement, finite as it often is, and the glowing warmth of his sunlit scenes. And in these he excels, not so much by the subtlety of his omissions as by the harmony of his assertions and his exuberant objectivity." (John Sargent, New York, 1927, p. 224)
In Ladies in the Shade: Abriès, Sargent is returning to the theme of reclining women that he first explored in 1888 and 1889. These earlier works, painted in Calcot and Fladbury, were more studied, portraying women posed in the grass with opaque washes. In the present work the artist boldly reinterprets the theme with a progressive and innovative use of broad, variously toned washes highlighted by calligraphic lines and exposed paper to create a vibrant composition that is simultaneously timeless and modern.
This work will be included in a forthcoming volume of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff and published by Yale University Press.