John Singer Sargent Sketches Guarini and Juvarra

John Singer Sargent Metropolitan Museum

Dome of San Lorenzo and Campanile, Turin
John Singer Sargent (American, Florence 1856–1925 London), ca. 1877–78
Pen and ink and graphite on off-white wove paper, 9 x 11 3/4 in. (22.9 x 29.8 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950, 50.130.141u

The exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors currently at the Brooklyn Museum (before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in October) offers a good excuse to reexamine some of Sargent’s other works on paper. Undoubtedly better known to Americanists than scholars of Piedmontese Baroque architecture, this Sargent sketch of Guarini’s San Lorenzo dome along with Juvarra’s upper levels of the Turin cathedral campanile captures the same sun-dappled play of light as many of the watercolors. The sketch’s neutral, documentary quality seems to reflect a newly objective approach to Baroque monuments after a century of anti-Baroque criticism.

Perhaps some distaste for Guarini lingered, however. Sargent ended up focusing more closely on Juvarra, sketching three other sheets with the cathedral campanile alone, today in the Fogg Museum at Harvard (here, here, and here).

The comparison with J. M. W. Turner’s sketches of the same buildings a little over a half-century earlier is instructive. Turner’s Façade of S. Giovanni, the Cathedral at Turin, Piazza Castello, Turin, and Campanile and Dome of Cathedral at Turin (all from one of his northern Italian sketchbooks of 1819 now in the Tate Gallery) reproduce the same architectural features, along with the dome of the Cappella della Sindone. But Turner’s sketches are less precise, more atmospheric than documentary, and often unfinished.

While Turner and Sargent clearly had different priorities with their sketches, one cannot help speculating about how the comparison might illustrate starkly contrasting attitudes toward Baroque architecture in Regency England and expatriate American circles in later nineteenth-century Italy.

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Stephanie L. Herdrich and H. Barbara Weinberg, with Marjorie Shelley, American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000): 154-155.