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 Foundation.
[Terra Foundation Logo] [Christie's Logo] [Altria Logo] [NEA 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), 1879
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 south coast.
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 facile execution.
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 North Africa.
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 public display.
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 of venue.


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