- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

Scenes of roiling waves, ocean sunsets and sandy beaches expose a neglected period of John Singer Sargent’s career in a revelatory show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. They make it tempting to think Sargent could have become a great painter of marine landscapes instead of a virtuoso portraitist.

The more than 80 pencil drawings, watercolors and oil paintings in “Sargent and the Sea” were mostly created between 1874 and 1879, when the artist was in his late teens and early twenties. At his death in 1925, his fame for society portraits had eclipsed these early works.

The exhibit’s sea-themed sketches and oils reflect a freedom lacking in Sargent’s portraits, but like most of his paintings, they tend to be more about surface than substance.

Sargent, who never put down roots, didn’t believe in the sea as a powerful symbol of national pride as did painters J.M.W. Turner and Winslow Homer. He merely saw it as an aspect of nature worth describing in detail through the wizardry of his brush and pencil.

Through seascapes, he learned to capture light and shadow and their effects on color, while experimenting with captivating arrangements of sunbathers and fisher folk. These fluid studies helped Sargent to paint his portraits, which he began exhibiting at the same time he was painting the sea.

To reach his marine pictures, visitors walk through a small show of the artist’s figural works from the Corcoran’s collection in the lower rotunda gallery. This introduction serves as a reminder of Sargent’s range and the adaptability of his talent to the subject at hand.

In consultation with Sargent scholar Richard Ormond, who is the grandnephew of the artist, curator Sarah Cash organized “Sargent and the Sea” both chronologically and thematically to reveal the effect of the artist’s travels on his art. Photographs of the painter and his relatives, resort towns in France and Italy, and ocean liners supply the background to the expatriate Sargent and his peripatetic life.

Born in Florence to Philadelphia surgeon Fitzwilliam Sargent and his wife, Mary, the artist grew up in hotel rooms and rented villas throughout Europe. He studied in Paris under the fashionable French portraitist Carolus-Duran, who encouraged him to paint directly on the canvas without preparatory drawing.

Sargent’s interest in maritime themes may have been inspired by stories of his ancestors’ seafaring past. His first studies of the French coastline were completed while vacationing with his family in Normandy and Brittany during the summers of 1874 and 1875. From these trips came numerous sketches of keenly observed sea life, including octopus and starfish, and cattle herded onto a boat.

In 1876, Sargent’s first trans-Atlantic voyage from Europe to America fired up his art. No longer looking out to sea, the 20-year-old took advantage of being surrounded by water to paint its unbridled force.

“Atlantic Storm,” one of the highlights of the show, presents the ocean’s powerful swells as mountainous cliffs divided by the foamy trace of the ship. The boat’s wooden deck, flanked by lifeboats, is barely visible in the foreground of the high seas.

In capturing the danger of the ocean crossing, the painting reflects Sargent’s knack for the dramatic. This theatricality would be later manifested through dancing and preening figures in his best known masterpieces “El Jaleo” and “Madame X.”

During his ocean-going trip, Sargent continued to capture the immensity of the sea in three seascapes recently rediscovered from private collections. Two of them focus on the dark outlines of an abandoned ship against streaky sky and water, while the third omits the vessel altogether in a romantic sunset scene.

One of the most unusual paintings in the exhibit portrays Sargent’s mother resting on a deck chair aboard the ship. Its flat patterns of color suggest the influence of Edgar Degas and other French artists associated with the impressionist movement.

Ocean travel loosened Sargent’s brush, but he only flirted with modernism.

His academic training led him to compose exacting pictures in the studio from sketches made on his travels. Almost identical versions of the same scene were created to win over separate audiences in Europe and the United States.

“Setting Out to Fish,” a painting now in the Corcoran’s collection, was submitted to the prestigious Paris Salon while its smaller companion, “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale,” was sent to a gallery in New York.

Studies for the paintings, made during a summer trip in 1877 to Brittany, are included in the exhibit to show how Sargent changed details of costume and pose in his final grouping of women and children — and excluded the more blandly dressed men.

In 1878, Sargent visited the Bay of Naples. His most significant painting from the trip, “Neapolitan Children Bathing,” captures the intense light and heat at water’s edge. This small, dazzling canvas depicts four naked boys standing and lying in the sand as if the picture had been snapped by a camera. Studies of similarly posed youngsters show how the artist cleverly altered and cropped the figures in his painting to achieve a candid effect.

The final grouping of pictures in the exhibit documents fishing boats in Mediterranean harbors and ports, all painted around 1879. Sargent continues experimenting in these paintings, capturing the patterns of masts and riggings, and their reflections in water.

He turned to figurative subjects after a trip to Spain and Morocco, but continued to be attracted to the water. Missing from the exhibit is a sequence of canal scenes painted in Venice during the 1880s.

Sargent went on to become the pre-eminent recorder of Gilded Age society, only to return to landscape painting in the 1900s. His early affinity for the sea, so well documented in this exhibit, turns out to be as important to his career as his better known flattery of the rich.

WHAT: “Sargent and the Sea”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, through Jan. 3

ADMISSION: $10 adults; $8 seniors, military, students; free for children younger than 6

PHONE: 202/638-1700

WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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