Thursday, July 08, 2010

Sargent and the Beach

Sargent and the Sea is the title of the exhibition which opens in the Sackler Galleries of the Royal Aacdemy of Arts on Saturday 10th July.  However I’m more inclined to remember it as Sargent and the Beach since it struck me that the much more successful paintings in the exhibition were figurative paintings of adults and children on the beach and foreshore.

'En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish)', 1878. 
Oil on canvas, 78.8 x 122.8 cm
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund 17.2

The exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent was conceived by Sarah Cash, curator of the Corcoran Museum in Washington who was present at the preview.  It revolves around one painting or maybe one should say two paintings of the same scene in Cancale in Britanny.
  • The principal painting in the exhibition is Sargent's second submission to the Paris Salon En route pour la pêche (Setting out to Fish) (1878).  It is now owned by the Corcoran Gallery 
  • A smaller version of the same painting - now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston - was submitted to the Inaugural Exhibition of the newly formed Society of American Artists (SAA).  You can see the painting in the middle below.  The study on the far left (below) is a related work - an earlier plein air study of the same scene.
Two rooms before the Cancale room and three rooms after it include other paintings and drawings produced during, or inspired by, the artist’s summer journeys from his home in Paris to Brittany, Normandy, and Capri, as well as two transatlantic voyages between Liverpool and the USA.  It’s also important to note that the exhibition focuses almost entirely on works completed during the years 1874-1879 when Singer Sargent was aged 18-23 and still completing his art education.

En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish)

 Three versions of the same scene are hung in the exhibition

En Route pour la pêche serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition - and yet it was completed when Sargent was just 22 years of age and on the threshold of his professional career as an artists.

Sargent submitted works to the Paris salon every year from 1877 to 1886.  It's very clear that the expedition to Cancale (June - August 1877) was made with the clear intention of creating a second painting which could survive the intense competition and be exhibited at the salon.  I guess it was all about providing that he was more than just a 'one hit wonder'!

It was also the first expedition that Sargent made on his own without his family who had travelled peripatetically around Europe ever since his birth in Florence in 1856.   With this expedition and this painting Sargent was 'coming of age'.  He was very clear, as a young painter, that the way to achieve his fame and fortune was to be exhibited in the Salon.   This painting could be said to have made his career.

The painting presents a view of women and children setting out to gather the fruits of the sea at low tide in the Breton fishing village of Cancale - renowned as "the famous oyster garden of France" and a phenomenon which was a tourist attraction.  Previous paintings by French artists depicting this scene hadbeen purchaed by French Museums - and Sargent was evidently trying to achieve the same sort of patronage.

John Singer Sargent
Girl on the Beach, Study for En Route pour la peche and Fishing for Oysters at Cancale, 1877
Oil on canvas, 48.3 x 29.2 cm

Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago, 1999.131

What's fascinating about the room is the display of the preparation which went into the painting.  The room comprises a number of studies - of figures - completed prior to the development of the paintings.  There are twelve preparatory and related works in oil and pencil which had been completed in the summer of 1877 prior to the development of the painting in Sargent's studio in Paris.  The catalogue devotes a whole chapter and many images to the process of the developing the painting. 

It's also fascinating that he produced two versions - painted in slightly different ways for two different exhibitions on either side of the Atlantic.  His journey to the USA for the first time in May 1876 enable him to appreciate that there were two potential markets for his work.  What's interesting is that the larger painting is sometimes known as the Oyster Gatherers of Cancale and the smaller painting is called Fishing for oysters at Cancale.    However Sargent was making his studies in the summer - in months which didn't contain an 'r' in their name and locals were prohibited from gathering oysters.

However the oysters enabled a connection with both sides of the Atlantic as New York used to have very famous and very extensive oyster beds and in the second half of the nineteenth century New York was experiencing oyster mania.  It therefore seems very likely that he had thought of a painting which might have two possible audiences on either side of the Atlantic.

Is Sargent a marine painter?

I’m not convinced by the description of Sargent as a marine painter or even the title of the exhibition.  It seems to me that the two rooms which contain by far his best work are the ones related to work he did at Cancale in Britanny and on Capri.  These works are all about the beach.  They are also very much about people rather than ships, boats or the sea. He’s painting people but not individuals.

His works on Capri focus on paintings of small naked boys lounging on the beach.  Again the room demonstrates how several separate studies, mainly in oil on mahogony boards, were used to develop the painting of  Neapolitan Children Bathing.  All share a thin quick techniqe of painting with oil plein air.  It's a study from life - but one assembled in the studio from studies made plein air. 

John Singer Sargent
Neapolitan Children Bathing, 1879
Oil on canvas, 16.8 x 41.1 cm

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.852

I’m left feeling slightly ambivalent about this exhibition.

As a profile of a particular aspect of Singer Sargent’s work at a very early stage in his career it succeeds - if only by demonstrating to us the process he used to develop his paintings and also, it must be said, that sometimes his skills at this early stage were not always quite as remarkable as they were later in life.

While I appreciate that there are a number of sketches of ships and boats and some paintings of ships at sea these aren’t works which speak of Sargent to me.  It seems to me that this is Sargent at an age when he is experimenting.  In one painting he's trying to emulate Turner - but not doing too well, although it's a brave attempt.

In another, his painting Atlantic Sunset (1876) actually reminded me very much of Impression Sunrise (1872) - blue greys and a splash of orange.  Given Sargent was very much an admirer of Monet and that he painted it four years after Monet's painting was exhibited, it struck me that this is a very understandable act of emulation by a young man.

Atlantic Sunset c.1876
oil on canvas, 25.5" c 36"
Private Collection
The coda to the exhibition (the RA contribution - not seen in the Corcoran or Texas) are a collection of Venetian paintings mainly from the Royal Academy collection which only serve to heighten the contrast between some of his earlier works (particularly those in the last room) and the confidence of his use of watercolour and brushwork demonstrated clearly in the later work completed in Venice some 25 years later in the early 1900s. 

I certainly enjoyed seeing Sargent's sketches in graphite and these are well produced in the catalogue of the expedition.

One of the things I learned during the exhibition was that Sargent was an abysmal archivist of his own work.  Unlike Turner, whose bequeathed his work to the nation and whose 300 sketchbooks from trips around the UK and Europe can be viewed at Tate Britain, Sargent's work appears to have been distributed quite widely.  There is no central repository for his sketchbooks and it's also evident that he tended to take his sketchbooks apart to work from the sketches.  However the exhibition does include Sargent's scrapbook of the 1870s which is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  It's huge and it contains a lot of sketches which have been pasted in after being used for other purposes.

Richard Ormond in front of the map of places where Sargent painted in Brittany

It was particularly gratifying to hear additional commentary from Richard Ormond, (Sargent’s great nephew and author of the catalogue raisonee).  You can read an excellent article by Ormond  Sargent and the Sea: Making waves on the website.

I'd recommend going to see the exhibition if only to view a small number of excellent paintings and a number of interesting studies and sketches in oil, watercolour and graphite. 

You can see my sketch of the Cancale painting in Sketching Sargent at the RA

Note: This exhibition has been organised by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in cooperation with the Royal Academy of Arts



Sophie said...

Great article, thanks for this. I am hoping to go and see it. Did you manage to see the book/catalogue - what did you think of it?

Making A Mark said...

I'm part way through it but will be posting a review on Making A Mark Reviews
The main thing to bear in mind is tha this is the Yale University Press publication so doesn't have anything about the Venetian watercolour sketches which are the coda to the London Exhibition

I also think I'm spotting that some pics which were in the American exhibition are not in the London one - but I need to review and check that again.

The book is good for showing you his sketches.

Parisbreakfasts said...

Thanks for the terrific overview of this exhibit. How I would have loved to have seen it...
The scrapbook sounds very intriguing - I'll have to search it out at the Met when it returns.
And thanks for the link to Ormond's talk.
I shall look too for the catalog.

Susan Roux said...

Looks like an amazing exhibit! Thanks for sharing.

Olha Pryymak said...

Saw it yesterday: it does not glorify the painter, merely brings him down to earth unearthing his earlier studies, and processes. Loved it for that reason alone. His penchant for painting people well could be seen there right away.

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