First Person

Makeover artist

MFA curator Erica Hirshler believes the new John Singer Sargent watercolors exhibit reveals a man embracing change.

MFA curator Erica Hirshler with John Singer Sargent’s “Corfu: Lights and Shadows.”
Photograph by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; artwork from the Hayden Collection — Charles Henry Hayden Fund
MFA curator Erica Hirshler with John Singer Sargent’s “Corfu: Lights and Shadows.”

 Sargent painting in watercolors was Sargent painting for himself. He already had a long career as a portrait painter, where he was really beholden to his clients. He made portraits that interested him and that stand alone as great works of art. But Sargent felt by the turn of the 20th century he had really exhausted all of the artistic and aesthetic challenges of that kind of portraiture, and he began to give it up. He wrote about how watercolors were really a medium in which he could express himself freely, just painting the things that he loved.

What you see is a vast array of subject matter, lots more landscapes, lots more figures in landscapes, lots of adventurous compositions where the surface design becomes as important as the view into the landscape. He’s never as modern as the abstract artists, but at the same time he’s very experimental in his way of looking at the real world.

If you look closely, you can see that he often pencils in an outline, and then a lot of the time he ignores it altogether, so he really gets lost in his painting, lost in the effects watercolor can create.


Every time I look at these pictures I want to get lost in them, and they make me want to go to Italy.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

I have one I always go back to, Corfu: Lights and Shadows [pictured], because I think it’s such an amazing watercolor, both technically in terms of the variety of effects and I love that he’s painting things that aren’t there. One of the main subjects is the shadows of a tree that you can’t see.

This is a chance to see an artist reinvent himself, which I find really exciting. That’s something I hope people will think about when they see the exhibition. The watercolors are fantastic and beautiful, but there’s also this wonderful idea of somebody trying something new.  — As told to Joel Brown (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

SEE FOR YOURSELF The exhibit “John Singer Sargent Watercolors” opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 617-267-9300;