Sargent and the Sea
February 14 - May 23, 2010
Wall panel text from the exhibition
- Sargent and the Sea
- This exhibition reveals, for the first time, an unknown
chapter in the art of American expatriate John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
The artist here is not the Sargent who would later become the greatest
portraitist of his era, for which he is justly known and celebrated. Instead,
we are introduced to a young art student at the beginning of his career
who is learning his craft and forging his own artistic identity.
- Surprisingly, in his early career -- the years leading
up to his successful portrait practice -- Sargent was primarily a painter
of seascapes. During the period covered in this exhibition (1874 to 1880,
when the artist was between 18 and 24 years of age), Sargent developed
into an innovative artist pushing back the boundaries of marine art through
his unconventional viewpoint; the realism with which he rendered light
and tone; and his bold, free brushwork.
- In this exhibition, recent discoveries of several important
marine paintings join with two major oils of peasants fishing in Cancale
in the French region of Brittany (1878), and a portrayal of boys on a beach
on Italy's Amalfi Coast (1879), to reveal Sargent's search for and development
of subject matter that he could turn into pictures suitable for the leading
public exhibitions of his day. His strategy, to display his work at prominent
venues on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at practically the same moment,
allowed him to test the waters of public perception. His gambit reaped
rewards: from the moment he exhibited his two paintings of Cancale in 1878
in both France and in the United States, Sargent paved the way toward establishing
himself as a preeminent international painter.
- Sargent and the Sea is organized
by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and made possible by
the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, Christie's,
the Mr. & Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc., and
Altria Group, Inc. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by
the National Endowment for the Arts as part of "American Masterpieces:
Three Centuries of Artistic Genius" and the Joseph F. McCrindle
- [Terra Foundation Logo] [Christie's Logo] [Altria Logo]
- In Houston, this exhibition receives funding from:
- Nancy and Rich Kinder
- Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Hevrdejs
- Cherie and Jim Flores
- Mr. and Mrs. T. R. Reckling III
- Carla Knobloch
- Carol and Michael C. Linn
- Mr. and Mrs. Richard P. Schissler, Jr.
- Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson
- Additional generous funding is provided by the MFAH Benefactors
of American Art:
- Cornelia and Meredith Long
- Bobbie and John Nau
- Fayez Sarofim
- Ann Gordon Trammell
- Education programs for this exhibition are made possible
by the Favrot Fund.
- John Singer Sargent, c. 1874,
Photograph, Fratelli Vianelli, Venice, Private collection.
- John Singer Sargent, c. 1880,
Photograph, Paul Berthier, Paris, Private collection.
- Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, in January 1856
to American expatriate parents who had given up their native country for
a roving, unsettled existence, traversing Europe as the seasons dictated.
Sargent grew up with a keen appreciation of European art and culture. He
was widely traveled and well-read, spoke four languages, was a gifted pianist,
and showed a precocious talent as a watercolorist and draftsman.
- Sargent's parents encouraged him, and the young Sargent
studied in the atelier of the fashionable Parisian painter Carolus-Duran;
took evening classes with the French Realist painter Léon Bonnat;
and enrolled in the official French art school, the Ècole des Beaux-Arts.
Ultimately, Sargent's approach to painting reflects the variety of his
training. Neither traditional nor avant-garde, Sargent charted his own
artistic course, combining the traditions of older painting with an immediacy
that spoke of his own modern age.
- The family's holidays on the north French coast at about
this time may have precipitated Sargent's interest in painting marine subjects.
The young Sargent possessed a thorough knowledge of seafaring that is well
demonstrated in the pictures and drawings gathered together here, based
on his travels in France to Normandy, Brittany, and Nice.
- A new sophistication and distinct advance in artistic
powers may be detected in works executed around the winter of 1874 to 1875.
By 1876, when the artist made his first transatlantic voyage, visiting
his native country of the United States for the first time, Sargent came
of age as a marine painter. Exposure to the elements of the ocean released
the young artist's imagination and his ambition. He was no longer looking
out to sea from the comfort zone of the shore but caught up in the drama
and wildness of the ocean itself, especially on the return voyage, when
he experienced the full force of an Atlantic gale.
- I found much pleasure in looking at Mr Sargent's picture,
En Route pour la pêche. This artist paints with free, broad strokes,
which seem confused when viewed up close, but which give a sense of relief
and energy to the figures when seen at a distance. He creates the feeling
of the sun shining on the wet sands of the beach, dappled here and there
by the blue reflections of the sky in the shallow pools of water.
- - French art critic Roger Ballu, 1878
- "One of the most delightful, golden, happy, accidental
hits in the exhibition is John S. Sargent's Neapolitan Children Bathing."
- - American art critic Edward Strahan (aka Earl Shinn),
- Sargent's Scrapbook
- Throughout his life, Sargent was a tireless draftsman.
This important and heretofore little-studied scrapbook, created by the
artist between 1874 and 1880, preserves 27 drawings and watercolors of
marine and coastal subjects by Sargent. These sketches show his fascination
with recording effects of light; tonal relationships; the form and dynamism
of water; and vignettes of life around the sea.
- Sargent also gathered and inserted into the scrapbook
26 of his drawings and watercolors of non-marine subjects; more than 150
prints and commercial photographs of works of art, architecture, and travel
destinations; and cartoons and illustrations clipped from contemporary
periodicals. The varied material he assembled provides a rare glimpse into
the mind and method of the young artist as he made the transition from
student to professional.
- Cancale, Brittany, 1877
- Sargent visited the small Breton fishing village of Cancale
in the summer of 1877 to find a subject for his second submission to the
prestigious Paris Salon. His choice of a French seaside theme was natural,
given his recent summers spent sketching and painting marine scenes. It
was also within a well-established genre, although seascapes and rural
views by his contemporaries more often depicted resort towns on Brittany's
- Sargent's highly productive two-month stay in Cancale
yielded no fewer than 11 known studies in oil and pencil depicting the
town's picturesque shoreline and fisherfolk. Over the fall and winter,
the artist worked these sketches up into not one, but two major exhibition
pictures, a lengthy process that belies their appearance of freshness and
- In the spring of 1878, Sargent submitted En Route
pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish) to the Salon and soon thereafter
showed the smaller Fishing for Oysters at Cancale at the inaugural
exhibition of New York's Society of American Artists. These two sparkling,
ambitious paintings announced Sargent's arrival-at just age 22-on the burgeoning
international art scene.
- Capri, 1878
- Sargent spent the summer and early fall of 1878 in Capri,
a picturesque island near Naples that had been a popular tourist destination
since the early 1800s. He may have known of the locale from viewing romantic
pictures of its people and scenery at exhibitions, for he was an avid museumgoer.
The presence of several artist friends there during the summer of 1878
suggests that Sargent had consulted with them before selecting his destination.
- During this time, Sargent produced a good number of vivid
and sparkling oil studies of local children on the island's beaches, each
executed on a small, portable wood panel of similar dimensions. Following
the pattern he had established with the carefully planned Cancale beach
scenes, these oil sketches culminated in the similarly meticulously executed
(yet deceptively informal) Neapolitan Children Bathing. The artist
submitted the painting to the annual exhibition of New York's National
Academy of Design the following spring, to deservedly resounding accolades.
- Ports and Harbors, 1877-80
- The final group of marine subjects from the early period
of Sargent's art are the least well-known and documented; one of these
(now destroyed) was dated "1879," which has been taken as the
approximate date of most of the series. Sargent had every opportunity for
sketching a variety of Mediterranean ports during the period from 1877
to 1880, when he traveled to Naples, to Nice (twice), and to Spain and
- Small in size and mostly executed in watercolor, these
images portray working boats, the business of shipping, and the processes
of seaborne trade. This rich body of work includes scenes of ships at anchor
in the open sea, merchants discharging cargo, and fishing boats at the
quayside. The pictures are works of social realism in their unsparing record
of industrial conditions.
- After 1879, the artist turned to new subject matter and
began to focus increasingly on portraiture. It was not until after 1900
that he would again create a significant group of marine subjects depicting,
for example, the island of Majorca, Venetian lagoons, Italian and Portuguese
coastal scenes, and yachts in Florida.
- What's in a Title?
- Over the years, the title The Oyster Gatherers of
Cancale has been used frequently to refer to both of the completed
paintings on this wall. However, neither canvas bore that name during Sargent's
lifetime, and today each is known by the title Sargent chose for its first
- In the Paris Salon of 1878, the Corcoran's painting was
called En Route pour la pêche, which translates roughly to
Setting Out to Fish. The artist titled the smaller canvas Fishing
for Oysters at Cancale when he showed it in New York City at the Society
of American Artists.
- Despite the latter title, Sargent witnessed no oyster
gathering in Cancale -- justly famous for its bivalves then as now -- since
the activity was strictly prohibited there during the summer. Government
regulations protected the oysters, weakened and not prime for eating during
their spawning season, and also mitigated the effects of longstanding overfishing.
- The artist likely chose the name Fishing for Oysters
at Cancale to appeal to his first-ever American audience, as he must
have known that New York was the epicenter of the country's rage for oysters.
The city boasted oyster cellars on nearly every street corner as well as
vast floating wholesale markets along the Hudson and East Rivers.
- The Salon title En Route pour la pêche more
accurately describes what Sargent would have seen in Cancale. The painting
represents the common activity of strolling to collect the evening's dinner-clams,
mussels, crabs, sea snails, scallops, small fish, seaweed, and the occasional
stray oyster-all either washed up on shore or trapped in pools left by
the receding tide.
- Sargent's Working Methods in the Cancale Paintings:
- Questions, but Few Answers
- Courtesy Lydia Vagts, Associate Conservator of Paintings,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- While organizing the exhibition Sargent and the Sea,
curators and conservators discovered new information about the relationship
between Fishing for Oysters at Cancale and En Route pour la pêche.
As this display shows, when an image of the former is enlarged and laid
over an image of the latter, the contours of the figures match almost precisely.
- The way in which Sargent so precisely enlarged (or reduced)
the contours remains a mystery. It is unlikely that he could have done
so only by eye, nor did he apparently employ a grid. The artist may have
used a mechanical enlarging tool such as the magic lantern, a device that
could project slides onto surfaces allowing him to then paint in figures,
later altering their details.
- This possibility is supported by the fact that during
Sargent's early career, he was not only gaining confidence and exploring
a variety of media and methods, but also developing an avid interest in
photography. But, whatever Sargent's process for creating his exhibition
paintings, close analysis reveals that he planned each work's distinctive
style just as he would select its title: in accordance with his choice
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