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Sargent and Italy at the Denver Art Museum

John Singer Sargent is, by any measure, one of our greatest American artists.

Born in 1856 in Florence, the eldest son of an American expatriate couple, he was a talented and precocious child. When he was 12, his mother, writing to a friend, remarked that "[John] is getting old enough to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature and art, which are lavishly displayed in these old lands. If we could afford to give him lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist."

Prescient mom! Sargent became the pre-eminent portraitist of the gilded age, a painter whose technical brilliance has rarely been equaled, let alone surpassed.

Sargent and Italy, which opens this weekend at the Denver Art Museum, brings together for the first time more than 65 oils and watercolors, most of which have Italian subjects. Unlike the formal portraits for which Sargent is best known, most of the works on display were done for the artist's own pleasure. Many are inscribed to friends, in memory of the occasion that inspired the painting.

This is a show worth visiting, and revisiting and revisiting. Large as the human gene pool may be, it only produces artists of Sargent's caliber once or twice a century. Blockbuster exhibitions such as this one are expensive and difficult to mount. Once they're gone, they're gone for good. We'll never have another opportunity to see these paintings, and see them you must.

If you want to witness the difference between competence and genius, it's on display right here. Competent artists (such as, say, Sargent's contemporaries Maurice Prendergast or Childe Hassam) can create pleasing, faultless works that magnify and illuminate the world. Genius shows us a world that we could not imagine absent the work of art.

Look, for example, at half a dozen oils that Sargent executed of scenes high in the Italian Alps, "Simplon Pass" and "The Moraine" among them. These are not expansive landscapes, mountains marching to the horizon, grand alpine valleys. They're snatches of landscape: a scree-filled gully, a glacial stream tumbling over rocks. Here, Sargent has captured the hard, bright light of the high country without tailoring reality to fit neatly into a 25-by-30 frame. As he once said, "I paint objects, not views."

What adds to the sense of Sargent's overall greatness is that his work transcends styles and categories. He floated effortlessly from realism to naturalism to impressionism, and was uniformly masterful. And take "Mountain Fire" -- a watercolor sketch that's as spare, economical and attenuated as a 12th-century Japanese landscape -- which explodes with light, color and virtuosic intensity

Fans of Sargent's portraits may want to prepare themselves. Upon entering the show, museum goers are confronted with Sargent's full-length portrait "Mrs. Ralph Curtis." I guess that the show's creators wanted to emphasize Sargent's well-known distaste for the society portraits that were his bread and butter. A nearby quotation reads: "No more portraits. I abhor and abjure them, especially of the upper classes. Above all, I must get abroad, to see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen." And looking at Mrs. Ralph -- stiff, formal -- you tend to agree.

Of course, if the curators had included one of Sargent's great portraits, "Madame X," or the Fine Arts Center's "Elsie Palmer," viewers might have taken away a different impression. In fact, look at the informal portraits of a young Capriote girl ("A Capriote," "Rosina") here displayed. At his best, Sargent knew the human heart as well as any painter who has ever lived. His landscapes and architectural studies, brilliant though they are, have a certain coldness, a certain austerity. But his portraits ... well, take a look at "Head of a Capri Girl," done when the artist was barely 22. Subtle, sensitive, quietly beautiful, it's an astonishing achievement for a 22-year-old.

Previewing the show, I was accompanied by DAM curator Tim Standring. Erudite and witty, Tim has seen a few paintings in his 30-year career, and usually has illuminating comments about whatever's on display (highly convenient for bewildered critics to crib without acknowledgment!). This time, though, Tim was often silent. We'd just look at the paintings, shake our heads, and laugh -- perfection requires neither comment nor criticism, only delight.

So let's close with a little bit of Denver envy. Here in Colorado Springs, we've just hired an amiable young man from Alabama to run our arts center. And in Denver, they've just hired an amiable middle-aged man from New York to design their museum expansion. When Daniel Libeskind's addition to the DAM is finished, the Denver Art Museum will join The Bigs; right up there with Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington in the art museum pantheon. And what about us? Well, we'll still be stuck in class D.

So go see the Sargent show -- the drive isn't really that bad.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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