John Singer Sargent mastered the use of watercolor and his efforts in that medium are some of the most dashing and boldly drawn works in American art. His brushstroke is unfailingly confident, his colors strikingly vibrant, his execution seemingly spontaneous. In Boats, Venice, Sargent has used a bright and broad palette and water-level point of view to depict a grouping of docked sailboats.
In the present work, Sargent takes advantage of the various angles and diagonals provided to him -- by the boats' rigging, masts, booms, hulls, and anchor chains -- to balance his picture. Sargent often chose his architectural and otherwise non-figural subjects based on their compositional possibilities, especially the works he painted of his beloved Venetian canals, where he would use the angles and intersections of buildings' interactions with each other and with the water's surface. The present work is dominated by three main aspects. The first is a line down the center of the work, defined chiefly by the prow of the near boat and its reflection. The other two consist of mirror-image diagonals that intersect at this vertical center line; at the bottom of the work the anchor line meets the seam between two of the hull's boards; at the top a boat's boom on the right cuts a diagonal into another boom, wrapped in a sail, at upper left. The careful composition belies the effortless look of this work, a stunning example of Sargent's bravura work in watercolor.
Evan Charteris, Sargent's friend and early biographer, remarked about his watercolor technique: "They have a happy air of impromptu of the artist having come upon a scene at a particular moment and there and then translated it into paint. He set his fact 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 color, 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)
This work will be included in the forthcoming John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff.