I heard that the Brooklyn Museum has several John Singer Sargent watercolors. Are they not part of the permanent collection?
While we do have numerous Sargent watercolors in our collection, unfortunately they aren't on view at the moment. Watercolors are particularly difficult to exhibit long term, as light exposure damages them irreparably. In 2013, they were on view as a special exhibition of Sargent's watercolors for 6 months. They likely are now resting in a very low light setting in storage.
Most museums (especially the Brooklyn Museum) house large amount of works on paper (including watercolors, prints, drawings and photographs), which sadly cannot be seen as often as visitors and curators would like or as often as the work itself deserves.
Did Sargent live in France for a while? Did he work alongside Monet at all?
He sure did! John Singer Sargent was born in Florence and moved to Paris in 1874 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts.
And he did more than just work alongside Monet. The two artists met at the Second Impressionists Exhibit in Paris in 1876. (Impressionists had their own exhibition, since the Salon, the Academy's official exhibition space, refused to display their paintings.)
They kept in touch even after Sargent left Paris. In 1887, for example, Sargent wrote to Monet: "I really do not want to be forgotten in Paris. It would upset me if I were considered a poor idiot, who has ceased to exhibit there to make a statement... I beg you, if you hear from our friends that I am a deserter or an ingrate, or that I am sulking, to contradict such nonsense."
Please explain this unusual example of a John Singer Sargent painting! Is it considered as valuable as his exquisite portraits?
Great question. This work was completed at a time when Sargent was moving away from formal portrait paintings and exploring more with plein air painting, or painting out-of-doors. He makes it clear that his technique was the focus of this work through the title. But while the focus of the painting is Helleu, a fellow artist, in the act of painting a plein air study, the canvas was most likely completed in the studio, where Sargent probably relied on a photograph in which Paul and Alice Helleu were similarly posed.
During the summer seasons of 1885 through 1889, Sargent worked in England, where he experimented intensely with plein air painting and was influenced by the Impressionist movement. In 1889 he was living and painting in Fladbury, England, where Paul and Alice Helleu visited him.
Although Sargent is certainly best known for his elegant portraits, his scenes of figures in landscapes are also highly valued by the museums that own them!
Do we know what Helleu was painting here?
Most likely the landscape in front of him! Sargent and Helleu worked together in the English countryside of the Cotswolds region.
The work was completed at a time when Sargent was exploring "en plein air" painting. However, Sargent likely painted this canvas in a studio, working from sketches and a photograph.