Spend enough time in Boston and you will find yourself fronted by John Singer Sargent’s vaguely austere virtuosity. His mural work has the knack for seeming even grander than it is, possessing a rococo classicism that can feel somewhat like a formal textbook lesson—on Greek mythology—made visual. His portraits, which provided a goodly chunk of his sizable income, flatter, but coolly. Women tend to become slimmer in them, men are made more regal, as though the sitter’s internal qualities have been cleaned up, formalized, and distilled into an outward image meant to please. That iteration of Sargent, for all of the bravura skill, can be a touch stiff.

So one might say that this large exhibit—it fills a dozen rooms—of Sargent’s watercolors is akin to what one experiences when, say, leaving behind Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa for the open wealds of Henry...


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