John Singer Sargent is largely known for being a portrait painter, capturing the faces of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century in American and Europe. Unlike Whistler, another American in Europe who preceded him by about 20 years or so, Sargent was always slated to be an artist, and spent his formative years traveling around Europe with his rich American expatriate parents. A guaranteed income will do wonders for an artist’s training, and by the time Sargent was 20, he already had a sizeable body of work to start submitting to salons in Europe and the US. And what we’re seeing in this show is how accomplished a draftsman and painter he was even at this age. And by focusing on a genre not associated with most of Sargent’s work, Sargent and the Sea reinforces our appreciation for these skills—as well as some of his limitations. In that, it does what any good museum show should do—it both pleases and instructs.
The show focuses on the two periods of Sargent’s life when he was doing lots of seascapes—when he was in his early 20s, spending time on the Normandy and Brittany coasts, and in Italy, and then towards the end of his life, particularly in Venice. It’s the early stuff that most impresses. The show contains both paintings and drawings, and it’s hard to say which impresses more—some of Sargent’s sketches are extraordinarily detailed, and just right. Sargent’s family had made its money in the sea trade, and it shows. Sargent knew ships the way Whistler knew bridges. (Sargent’s father at one point had hoped that Sargent would join the US Navy.) Even at age 20, he had an eye, and he knew how to use it.
I thought the most impressive stuff, in act, was the stuff he did in his early 20s in France. Influenced by the Barbizon school, he spent a lot of time wandering around beaches, capturing people, experimenting with color, and producing some of his most distinctive work. And the organizers (The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, and the Royal Academy) have done us the great favor of providing skecthes and preliminary paintings. So we can see what Sargent actually did to produce some truly fine paintings, perhaps the most famous of which, deservedly so, is En Route pour la pêche (1878), painted when Sargent was 22.
This, like much of the show, reflects not only the Barbizon influence, but also the trends of what artists, particularly the French, were trying to capture—light. This was an obsession with Whistler as well. And what Sargent produced in this period is a series of bright, almost impressionistic, scenes of the sea and coastal life. En Route pour la pêche is not a particularly innovative painting—it resembles several other works by other artists of the time. But what is distinctive, already, is some of Sargent’s brushwork, and the clear talent for draftsmanship. It’s also unusual in that this is one of the few periods of Sargent’s career when he painted people other than sitting, and rich, subjects.
After Normandy and Brittany, Sargent then spent time Naples, and there are a number of paintings of beaches, which are nice and bright, almost impressionistic. But then he stopped, and didn’t return to marine painting and seascapes until more than thirty years later. The Venice pictures were interesting, but in a negative way. Sargent obviously loved Venice, but his paintings are less satisfactory than, say, those of Whistler, in part because one has the sense that there has been little interest in pursuing those aspects of painting that fascinated Whistler the most—capturing light and the arrangement of color, which were lifelong obsessions with Whistler, which he never stopped pursuing even when he was doing other work. For Sargent, there seems to have been little advance in the technicals of painting, so the Venice pictures tend to resemble the paintings he did in his early 20s, as if there had been no break in development. Sargent is a brilliant colorist, though, so these are still very pleasing pictures in a way. But disappointing in a way as well, because it’s clear that there has been little advance in Sargent’s style.
These are all a far cry from Sargent’s portraiture, with their dark tones and dramatic use of black. Coincidentally, a recent London Review of Books has a review of a book (Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting, by Erica Hirschler) by Ruth Bernard Yeazell, which takes a look at one of Sargent’s best known paintings: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882).
This is one of Sargent’s works that just arrests you, and I can speak of time spent in front of it at the Museum of fine Arts in Boston. This seems to be so much the case that Hirschler, a curator at the museum, decided to write a book about the painting to find out why. It’s an odd painting, to be sure—the arrangement of the girls doesn’t quite make sense, and there are a number of critics who just don’t like the painting at all, including one who refers to it as “four corners and a void.” (Note–the reproduction here makes it look much brighter than it really is.) But it’s one of those paintings that just grabs you and makes you look. Which, for all I know, may be as good a definition of a great painting as I’ve come across yet.
The show runs through September 22 at the Royal Academy. It’s worth the trip.