BOSTON – John Singer Sargent was like a lot of artists I know. He had a hard time letting go of the paintings he loved the most.

Then again, everything has a price.

When the Brooklyn Museum offered him $20,000 in 1909 for a trove of his watercolors, he gave them up. Three years later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offered him a nice payday for a second set of watercolors. He sold those as well.

For the first time, the MFA in Boston brings together both sets of watercolors in a new exhibition that opens today.

“John Singer Sargent Watercolors” consists of 92 watercolors that he made during his travels in Europe and the Middle East. There also are 10 oils to add context and contrast.

He never intended these watercolors to be sold, but reconsidered after a successful showing.

Sargent made them during his travels across Italy and throughout the Mediterranean for his personal enlightenment.

He loved these paintings, and appreciated the quick response of watercolors that made them an ideal travel companion.

The paintings were made 100 years ago, long after Sargent had established himself with his portraits in oil.

Along the canals of Venice, Sargent sat in the gondolas and painted furiously while the boat slipped along the water, In the quarries of Carrara, watercolors enabled him to capture the men chipping away at rock while the sun played on the stone. In the Alps of Switzerland, he made succinct views of the vistas immediately in front of him, favoring a focused lens instead of a wide one.

This show reflects his broad travels, from Portugal and Greece, across Italy to present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

We tend to think of Sargent as a Boston-based portrait painter. This show gives us another perspective, said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s curator of American paintings. She described this work as joyful and full of freedom.

In these works, we see Sargent “recreating himself for a new century, rediscovering his creativity and his passion for making works of art.”

Free from the expectation and burden of painting portraits, he dedicated himself to the landscape, and traveled widely to find places that inspired him.

We see reclining human figures, experimental landscapes and boats on their moorings.

But mostly, we see the work of an artist painting for the pure joy of expression.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:[email protected][email protected]Twitter: pphbkeyespphbkeyes

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