Fine art: What if a snail could paint watercolours?

A detail from The Church of Santa Maria della Salute by John Singer Sargent

When you look at his watercolours you tend to picture John Singer Sargent lying on his front. Whether he was painting the prow of a ship or the columns of a tempietto, his perspective was that of a man craning his neck from his position on a picnic blanket.

It takes a while to get used to his snail’s eye view. Columns are truncated just above the base. Boats appear so massive from below that you are sure they’ll row you over even as you watch from the port. Sargent’s seductively supine niece raises her head as if surprised to find him painting her from toe-end. Few artists were as bold as Sargent when he was painting at leisure.

Although he was famous as a portraitist who worked in oil, Sargent (1856-1925) leapt at the opportunity to free himself from his commissions. Watercolour was the medium he turned to when he wanted to be himself. In the early 1900s he began to travel more extensively in Europe – Venice, Majorca, the Alps and then east to Istanbul – to make the most of working en plein air. He captured the splendour of city and country life from all angles, but most remarkably from below. Eighty of the watercolours he produced are on display in Dulwich until October 8. They make for dazzling viewing.

In San Vigilio (1913) he is on the coast of Lake Garda, watching the waves approach the yellow rocks. He represents perfectly the rather tentative motion of the lake as it nears the shore. Paddle here, as I did a few summers ago, and you will be struck by how gently the water ripples over your toes. This is not the sea – Sargent shows it is not. His waves are too cautious even to splash the old rowing boat moored in its shallows.

The waters of the Grand Canal in Venice, where he visited almost every year until the outbreak of the World War I, are almost equally serene. Their very flatness provides the chance for some exquisite reflections of the Venetian skyline. The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is viewed through a tangle of sail ropes and masts. Behind the dry brushstrokes which describe them emerges a dome so watery and blue that it seems to have swallowed the sky.

Watercolour suited Sargent. An excellent colourist, he worked at speed, filling his page with vibrancy, yet unafraid to leave passages unfinished or entirely blank. A walk around this exhibition will give you a new perspective on Sargent as a painter – and an urgent desire to gaze at Europe from the perspective of an oversized snail.

Sargent: The Watercolours closes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on October 8