LONDON (Reuters Life!) - U.S. artist John Singer Sargent was best known for his society portraits of subjects ranging from European beauties to U.S. presidents, which earned him comparisons to 17th century Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.
But “Sargent and the Sea,” a new exhibition of his works at London’s Royal Academy, seeks to unveil a different side to the artist that curators believe has been overlooked for too long.
The show, which runs until September 26, examines the artist’s experience as a marine painter and gathers more than 70 paintings, drawings and watercolors produced mainly during his travels around Europe as a young man.
“The extent of his engagement with marine subjects has only recently been recognized,” said co-curator Richard Ormond, Sargent’s great-nephew and an authority on the painter.
“The aim of this exhibition is to put the sea back center-stage, and to demonstrate what a large part it played in the evolution of the artist’s style,” he added in his introduction to the exhibition catalog.
Ormond said the recent discovery of three previously unknown Sargent seascapes, which all appeared on the art market in 2003 having never been exhibited before, underlined how, between 1874 and 1879, he was primarily a marine painter.
The largest, “Atlantic Sunset” dated 1876 and executed when Sargent was just 20, is described by Ormond as “a work of extraordinary sophistication for one so young.”
The show, housed in the Royal Academy’s smaller Sackler Wing, begins with Sargent’s earliest experiments with marine art during a family holiday in northern France in 1874, including simple sketches of an octopus and starfish on a piece of paper.
By that time he had already entered the studio of a leading Parisian painter with a view to pursuing art as a profession.
“Seascape with Rocks,” an oil painting from between 1875 and 1877, already shows how Sargent’s education was paying off with its sophisticated treatment of light on water.
Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, and spent his childhood and adolescence touring Europe with his American parents who had decided on a nomadic lifestyle abroad in pursuit of culture rather than a more secure existence back home.
His mother did eventually take him to the United States in 1876, and it was the sea voyages, as opposed to the time he spent in the country, which provided inspiration.
“Atlantic Storm,” probably undertaken in his Paris studio but based on his journey, is a dramatic depiction of a ship being tossed by huge swells out at sea.
The aft deck of the vessel is painted as if it is well beneath the viewer, giving the impression of a perilous angle, and behind it are dark, menacing waves that look ready to submerge the ship.
Other works from that trip include pencil sketches of crew at work, in contrast to painted scenes of first class passengers on board which contemporary artists tended to favor.
The central work of the exhibition is “Setting Out to Fish,” a large oil painting which Sargent intended for public viewing at the 1878 Paris Salon, a key showcase for budding artists hungry for fame and recognition.
He traveled to Brittany in 1877 to prepare it, and worked throughout the winter to have the painting ready in time.
Setting Out to Fish depicts a group of Breton women and their children walking across a beach toward the sea carrying baskets in which to put their catch.
The brushwork has been compared with the Impressionists, although the size and definition of the main figures set it apart from many of Sargent’s now famous contemporaries.
Sargent and the Sea concludes with rooms dedicated to the artist’s works based on a trip to the Italian island of Capri in 1878 and to a series of watercolors of unnamed ports around the Mediterranean dated between 1877 and 1880.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato