Sargent and the Sea


Editorial Review

Proof That Sargent Evolved From the Sea
In Maritime Art, a Man Yet Navigating His Gifts

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By the end of 1879, John Singer Sargent, one of the greatest of American painters, was all wet, washed-up.

I don't mean his career had tanked. He was only 23 years old, and had just begun to make sales and find critical success. Rather, most of Sargent's first pictures were not his famous portraits, but scenes built around water: the stuff itself, the skies and light above it, the boats it carried, the people who worked it. Those early pictures are the subject of a pioneering show called "Sargent and the Sea," which just launched at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Or maybe I do mean that Sargent was all washed up. If he had died after making these works, he'd barely be a footnote in the history of art. They were a damp dead end for the artist -- except that they fed into his later successes.

The drawings that the young Sargent made of nautical subjects have all the marks of talent, and none of genius. If anything, his tendency was to tamp down any inspiration. On the inspiration side, at least in a modest way, is this show's bold watercolor of some sailors bringing in a lifeboat, which you imagine might have been sketched from life. Tamping it down is the finished drawing that the 20-year-old artist made from the watercolor: Real workmen have become banal heroes, made to demonstrate all the gorgeous poses the male body can strike. (There's a strong homoerotic thread in Sargent's early work -- nude lads sunbathing, anyone? -- but the Corcoran's wall texts and catalogue essays don't follow it.)

Many of the maritime oils by this student artist aren't much stronger. When he first tries his hand at mountainous waves, they come closer to geology than hydrology.

The seaside scenes that got him his first significant attention, at the 1878 Salon in Paris and at that year's inaugural exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York, are eye-catching, polished and accomplished. They're also more than a bit Victorian and sentimental. They are "picturesque" in the bad sense -- they follow received ideas about how pictures were supposed to look. They are quite literally contrived: Essays by Corcoran curator Sarah Cash, who conceived this project, and by her colleague Marc Simpson, from Williams College, demonstrate how Sargent's subjects are collaged together from all sorts of scattered figure studies, according to the standard Salon practice.

The Sargent painting that seems to show a tidy little flock of women and children out "Fishing for Oysters at Cancale" doesn't show any such thing. In June 1877, when Sargent went to paint the port of Cancale in Brittany, he found its world-famous oyster fishery closed by law for the summer. That didn't stop him from manufacturing an image of it, to send home to good reviews at that American Artists show in New York, a city then gripped by an oyster craze. (Cash's research reveals wonderful details like the fact that the average American family ate two oyster meals a week at the time, and that by 1882 New York alone was shipping 76 million oysters to England each year.) In the larger, flashier version of the same painting now in the Corcoran's collection, the title has become "Setting Out to Fish" -- its audience at the Paris Salon knew that a high summer sun and Breton oysters couldn't go together -- but that doesn't make the contents of the picture any fresher. What are the true chances, statistically speaking, of a random glance at a French beach yielding the perfect combination of a willowy redhead, a mysterious young woman in black, a tow-haired toddler and a picturesque old crone?

Or take Sargent's little "Neapolitan Children Bathing." In 1879, how likely is it that you would have found a pair of pink-skinned blond babies among the beach-kids of Naples? (You want to hand the poor toddlers a tube of SPF 50.) And isn't it a bit too convenient that one of them should be wearing a pair of swimming bladders that glint gold in the sun, and that perch on his back exactly like a cherub's wings?

In all these student works, there's just one thing that comes off as unstudied: the white paint that the artist slathers onto them, after their pedestrian subjects have already been laid down, to make the seas in them wetter. In "Children Bathing," Sargent's painted "icing" represents a little roll of surf that's just hitting the sand behind his cherubs. In "Setting Out to Fish," Sargent's splashy paint renders the tidal pools his women are picking their way through. In earlier seascapes, that paint sits on the tips of waves or in the foam of a ship's wake. These details are what Sargent's first reviews praised at greatest length -- as he must have noticed. Sargent's fancy brushwork doesn't always convey the true look of things. In his Neapolitan picture, the big, visible traces of his brush hairs, as they get dragged through his viscous paint, are way out of scale with any details you could really make out in the bubbling froth of the surf. Rather than reflecting anything really observed in a scene, they are generic marks that let the painter say "I was there" -- they're more like an arbitrary mnemonic device than a true abbreviation. It's as though the liveliness of Sargent's roving brush and hand could stand in for the real life lacking in his manufactured scenes. It does.

That's what's crucial about Sargent's maritime pictures, and this exhibition. They let us watch as Sargent realizes that there's this magic thing he can do with brush and oil paint that can add spark to the most artificial of subjects. When he uses his bravura paint to render water, the most out-of-control of his subjects, he sees that his entire picture seems to break free of its artistic constraints.

And then he realizes that this spark can float free of water and land anywhere he needs it to, because it isn't really tied to specific details in his realism. It can even land in the most formal of his portraits, where it becomes an even more compelling device.

Sargent's marine paintings are full of artifice but pretend not to be. That is a hackneyed move. His art only takes off when he comes to paint the kind of high-society characters who are supposed to be explicitly, even exaggeratedly artificial, yet who, thanks to his whitecaps of paint, also seem improbably spontaneous. Rather than simply painting in an all-over flamboyant style, as artists had been doing at least since Titian and Frans Hals, Sargent builds pictures with a brilliant balance between the uptight and the carefree.

On the way out of this show, you pass some later Sargents that the Corcoran owns, gathered together in its great rotunda. The museum's stunning portrait of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White, a diplomat's wife and Washington doyenne, was painted in Paris in 1883, as the artist was hitting his stride and leaving behind the ocean. She feels entirely formal, and utterly natural. You could go splashing in the lace on her dress, or swimming in its silks.