Issue Number: 107
The RA’s exhibition ‘Sargent and the Sea’ celebrates a little-known aspect of the artist’s work: the marine paintings that show his dazzling virtuosity. Sargent’s great-nephew Richard Ormond gives us an insight into the artist as a young man.
John Singer Sargent, '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. Exhibition organised by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in cooperation with the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Christie's, The Mr & Mrs. Raymond J Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc, the National Endowment for the Arts, as part of 'American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius', and The Joseph F McCrindle Foundation.
The title ‘Sargent and the Sea’ might seem an anomalous one for an exhibition of a painter who is best known for his portraiture. The fact that he was a marine painter in his early years has been forgotten, which gives the Royal Academy show a pioneering edge, especially in light of the recent discovery of three seascapes associated with his first crossing of the Atlantic in 1876. The first of these paintings had been given to the proprietor of Sargent’s first studio in Paris, Dr Lemercier, and descended in his family. The second, a gift to the artist Adolph Hirsch, with whom Sargent shared the studio, was sold in 1912 and disappeared into a collection in the American Mid-West. The third went to a close female friend and fellow expatriate Fanny Watts and was left to her god-daughter.
In 2003, all three paintings appeared on the art market within six months of each other, none having been previously exhibited. The largest, Atlantic Sunset, of 1876 is a work of extraordinary sophistication for one so young, a seaward view that takes the eye across a sweep of ocean, past an abandoned ship, to a distant horizon of orange-and-pink streaked sky. It was painted when the artist had just turned 20 and it might serve as a text for Henry James’ assertion in 1887, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, with reference to another work, that ‘it offers the slightly “uncanny” spectacle of a talent which, on the very threshold of its career, has nothing more to learn’. All of the distinctive characteristics of Sargent’s art are there – truth of impression, feeling for light and atmosphere and free, flowing brushwork. It reveals an awareness of the latest trends – of Whistler, in French painting Courbet and Monet, – yet it retains its own identity.
The sea was in Sargent’s blood. He came from a ship-owning family in Gloucester Massachusetts, and he might have been trained up for the business had it not gone bust under his grandfather. Dr FitzWilliam Sargent, his father, was a Philadelphia-trained surgeon, who married a local girl, Mary Newbold, and took her to Europe after the death of their first child. Immersed in the sights and culture of the old world and fuelled by Mrs Sargent’s money, they led a peripatetic existence around Europe.
Their first son, John Singer Sargent, was born in Florence on 12 January, 1856. He enjoyed little formal education but was brought up on sound New England principles. Sargent never gave up his US citizenship; Henry James called him ‘an admirable Bostonian’, and in later years Boston became almost a second home. By the age of 12 he had seen most of the great cities of Europe, spoke four languages and was gifted musically and artistically. His mother refined her son’s tastes and nurtured his talent. Mercurial and possessive, her attitude may in part have been responsible for his lifelong reserve and fear of intimacy. Whether or not he was homosexual is a matter of debate, for the artist guarded his privacy.
Sargent’s sister Emily, born a year after him, was his devoted companion during their restless, expatriate upbringing. A woman of intelligence, with a gift for friendship and a talent for watercolour, she was described by one Sargent biographer as the wife he never had. Two other children died in infancy, and the family was completed by Violet, born in 1870, 14 years after her brother. All three surviving Sargent children ended up living in Chelsea, London, within a stone’s throw of one another.
Family meant a lot to the artist and he was never happier than when in the company of his sisters and close friends. Violet, my grandmother, was still living in Chelsea when I knew her in the late-1940s and early 50s, in a large, gloomy flat, hung floor to ceiling with her brother’s work. She had been the ravishing model for his riverside scenes painted at Calcot, near Reading, and Fladbury in Worcestershire in the 1880s, and was an intimidating presence.
Sargent’s parents supported his artistic ambitions and sent him to study in Paris at the atelier of the fashionable portrait painter, Carolus-Duran. He was a precocious student, rapidly mastering the art of tonal realism and bravura brushwork that would dazzle his contemporaries. The seascapes and beach scenes included in the RA exhibition were painted while the artist was learning his trade, between the ages of 18 and 23. The show’s centrepiece En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish) was begun at Cancale in Brittany during the summer of 1877, and finished in the artist’s Paris studio the following winter. It shows a group of local women going down the beach to tend the oyster beds for which Cancale is famous. The frieze-like figure composition is set off by a dazzling vista of sand and sea pitched in a high key of colour. You can almost taste the salt sea air and feel the wind in your face on this brisk and sunny day. Many of the studies for the picture are also in the RA show and you can follow in detail the stages of its production. In 1878 Sargent sent the big picture to the Paris Salon, the official French exhibition society (it was only his second contribution) and a smaller, sketch-like version to the opening of the Society of American Artists in New York, where it aroused intense admiration. His career was launched – on both sides of the Atlantic.
Over the years, the artist contributed a series of highly ambitious portraits and subject paintings to the Salon that would mark him out as a rising star on the Paris art scene, including his great Spanish dance picture El Jaleo (1882) and the haunting portrait of the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). He was not afraid to flout the rules. His compositions were often described in the press as ‘fearless’, ‘audacious’ and ‘ostentatious’, while his bold brushwork challenged conventional ideas of finish. His experimental, plein-air landscapes and figure scenes he contributed to private gallery exhibitions, along with the Impressionists and other avant-garde artists. He was to become a close friend of Claude Monet, whose work he would later promote among his wealthy English and American friends. He and Monet spearheaded the successful campaign to buy Manet’s Olympia (1863) for the Louvre – indeed some critics described Sargent as Manet’s heir. Among his other influential friends were Auguste Rodin, the writer and Wagnerian muse Judith Gautier, the novelist Paul Bourget and
the playwright Edouard Pailleron.
Sargent fitted easily into the world of progressive French culture and he might well have stayed to pursue his career in France, but for the infamous portrait of Mme Gautreau in a revealing black dress, Madame X (1884). The sitter was known for her scandalous behaviour and, combined with her provocative pose with one strap off the shoulder, the painting caused outrage. Battered by this Salon disaster, Sargent allowed his English and American friends, among them Henry James and Edwin Austin Abbey, to persuade him that London offered a better chance of patronage than Paris. Within a decade Sargent would be the greatest Anglo-American portrait painter of his generation, travelling between London and Boston.
Success came first in America and it was not until he exhibited the stunning portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1893) at the Royal Academy, and swept all before him, that he enjoyed a parallel success in Britain. On the back of this triumph he was elected an ARA in 1894 and a full RA four years later. A series of masterly portraits, British and American, followed, earning Sargent the sobriquet ‘the Van Dyck of our times’, in Rodin’s memorable phrase.
In 1907 Sargent gave up portrait painting, to the indignation of fashionable society, in favour of landscape and mural painting. Among his watercolour landscapes painted after 1900 are some ravishing views of Venice, including several marines, which mark a return to the themes that had first inspired him 30 years earlier. The keen powers of observation and fluency of touch that light up his portraits are no less evident in his vibrant and translucent visions of Venetian canals and palaces, as seen in the enchanting picture of his friends, Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn, sketching from a gondola (bottom right). Sargent had been in love with the city since the 1880s, when he painted a mysterious group of studies of back streets and dingy interiors. In the 1900s he went there almost every year, recording its canals and buildings and shipping from the vantage point of his gondola. Unlike his friend Monet, or Walter Sickert who was also in Venice in 1903, he was not painting set-piece views of famous buildings. His close-up views, vibrating with light and colour, present a modernist vision of Venice unique to himself.
Sargent and the Sea Sackler Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 020 7300 8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk, 10 July–26 Sep. 2009-2013 Season supported by JTI. Exhibition organised by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in co-operation with the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Christie’s, The Mr & Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts Inc, the National Endowment for the Arts, as part of ‘American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius’, and The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation.