Saturday, 14 August 2010

John Singer Sargent Exhibition

John Singer Sargent has long been one of my favourite artists, and paintings of the beach and sea one of my favourite topics. Probably because I was brought up near the seaside. Memories of sandy sandwiches and sunny beach scenes are fond ones. Maybe not the sand in the sandwiches but the idea that you just ate them straight from the tupperware box, beaker of tooth-rot orange squash in the other hand, looking out at the vast panorama of sand and sea.

The exhibition, Sargent and the Sea is on at the Royal Academy in London at the moment. I know him best for his portraits, especially those gloriously romantic, period pieces of ladies in long frocks. But these are marine paintings. He was a marine painter in his early years and his family had at one time been ship owners in Massachusetts.

Sargent’s painting, On the Sands, reminds me of one of Vanessa Bell's paintings. It’s the light and black detail that really stands out, although it must be said that it is so much more delicate than Bell’s. More Monet like. The seated figure, the distant bathing huts, the whole scene so white it’s blue. Just marvellous.

And most people will know the centre piece of this show, his famous painting, En Route pour la peche, 1878, the painting of the French women setting out to fish. Apart from being beautifully painted it’s the light and the atmosphere that he manages to imbue the scene with that is so moving. These women are dawdling, chatting to the children as they saunter through the wet sand, baskets for collecting the oysters tucked under their arms. Very natural looking, to us, but probably totally unnatural!

For example, in the exhibition there is what may have been a first go at painting fisherwomen, Fisherwomen Returning, 1877. This time dark figures, black sky, back view, trudging through the water, weighed down with their baskets full of oysters. What a different take on the occupation. This painting brings home just how cold and hard this work must have been: nothing romantic or light in it.

Sargent’s close friend was Monet, and you can see the influence of French Impressionism in all his work. Although he started his artistic career in France it was in England and America that Sargent was to become most famous. And of course it was his portraits of the rich and famous that made his name and kept him in comfort.

Unfortunately, his scenes of the sea, Atlantic Storm and Atlantic Sunset, don’t inspire me. Nor do his watercolours of canals or boats. For me, it is his paintings of figures that are so special. He has the tremendous talent to instil feeling, movement and soul into figures. I loved the fisherwomen studies, and the studies of the children that were to be incorporated in his paintings of children on the beaches of Capri. The light in these is marvellous – you can imagine yourself there – and all of them are fresh, natural and warm. I would prefer an exhibition: Sargent and the Beach.


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