Rachel Cohen

Sargent Stone Water Stone Paper

Frederick Project: Materials

In 2013, a show of John Singer Sargent watercolors. I saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; it was co-organized with, and also shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. These two institutions have the two finest collections of Sargent watercolors.

These first details are from I Gesuati, ca. 1909.

[Works shown in this post belong to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; except for two, belonging to the Brooklyn Museum, noted below.]

It interested me that walls were so beautiful in his hands. Some of what he showed were walls of houses that had been painted with paint, and it made sense that the fluidity of watercolor would serve. But other walls would have been of marble.

Venice was one of his great subjects. Water flowing before and among walls. Bridges over and under. Here is a detail from Santa Maria della Salute, 1904, from the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

This extraordinary curve, the vault of the Rialto Bridge, seen from underneath, water running below stone and light echoing above. Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge, 1909.

Water itself was not only Sargent's subject but his technique, his material, and his ideas of time. This, All'Ave Maria, (from about 1902-1904, belonging to the Brooklyn Museum) is of people walking on the Zattere near Santo Spirito, at the time of evening vespers, was done very fast, the technique called "wet on wet" which makes the colors bleed into one another, as they do at that time of day.

Late in the show, this watercolor made on a trip to Carrara, Sargent called it Carrara: Wet Quarries. It's from 1911.

I haven’t been able to figure out why wet; something to do with the process of cutting stone, but I don't see how water is involved.

The men working look very hot among their blocks of stone. Sargent spent two weeks at this camp, he would have stood among his pieces of paper.

Quarrying had changed at that time, and was being done with dynamite which laid waste to much of the marble.

These are all from one watercolor, but in the exhibition, there were a whole series done at Carrara, strikingly abstract, with purples, yellow, green, and the great stones strewn about.

When I look at this set of five Sargent watercolors – I Gesuati, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice: Under the Rialto Bridge, All'Ave Maria, Carrara: Wet Quarries – I read a history of stone, made with water, on paper. A story of the most substantial medium, conserved in translucence.

for Massimo Warglien, Anna Gerotto, and in memory of Michael Cohen, all sheltering in Venice

for Hilary Cohen, sheltering in Ann Arbor

A little more late Manet

Frederick Project: Fortitude

Yesterday, I began from Manet’s morning glories and nasturtiums to arrive at a letter he sent to Marthe Hoschedé, with a water color of a horse chestnut on it.

Letter to Marthe Hoschedé, Decorated with a Chestnut, October 10, 1880, private collection.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

In the exhibition, at the museum, next to the letter with the horse chestnut, there hung a watercolor of plums. Today I’m going to begin there.

Three Plums, 1880. Collection of Cecille Pulitzer. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Believed to have been made for an autograph album or a collector, but still with the casual, personal quality, watercolor on paper, a line of inscription.

Mostly, I just want to show the layers, the colors.

Notice the definition of the space just below and between the two fruits on the left, that unexpected red over blue.

In the show, two rooms later, there was one of the great assemblages, perhaps a dozen still lifes from the very last years, when Manet was exhausted and ill and alone. In 1880, the same year he sent the watercolored letters, he painted these plums:

Plums, ca.1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

The still life has a long association with mortality, from the vanitas paintings of the Dutch tradition that Manet had studied intently, to the nature morte (literally translated dead nature) paintings of the French tradition, especially those by Chardin (1699-1779), who was one early father of Impressionism, and whose wonderful still lifes still impart tenderness, domestic fortitude, and courage. Manet, perhaps thinking of Chardin:

Topaz of the background:

Notice the space between, the definition in blue this time:

Manet had painted huge revolutionary canvases, the Déjeuener sur l’Herbe, and the Bar at the Folies Bergère, paintings that had provoked battles and schisms and had their place on the barricades. When he was dying and saw very few friends, and loved them, he painted these.

Sophie's Painting

Sophie039s Painting

Sophie Degan, Untitled




My cousin Sophie is dying.  She is ninety.  It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time.  We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks.  My mother is there now.

Sophie loved painting.  She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard.  They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years.  She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors.  She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.

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Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us.  I did not have time to tell.  But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it.  I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another.  This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people.  She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.

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I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious.  Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book.  There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes.  A painting may say, now, we are here.


Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st.  May she rest in peace.  


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