Growing up near the Mystic Seaport, I developed a robust appreciation for marine art and wrote several early art history papers on the subject, so trust me when I tell you that the Royal Academy’s “revelation” that society portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted seascapes isn’t all that surprising. Nonetheless, this summer they’re presenting 80 paintings, drawings and watercolours that Sargent made during his summer trips from Paris to Brittany, Normandy and Capri, as well as two transatlantic voyages. In The Observer Laura Cumming slams the show, declaring that it may be a summer crowd-pleaser, but the lack of sincerity and faint boredom in Singer’s early seascapes foreshadow the shortcomings of his later work.
“Sargent’s plein-air spontaneity looks even less persuasive when you look at all the preparatory sketches shown alongside it, figure after figure carefully rehearsed picking his or her way across the beach. In a Monty Python moment, a sketch of a lively little boy gets blocked from view in the final composition by the addition of an absurdly large basket. What was he thinking? The question presents itself over and again. Why was Sargent even drawn to the sea in the first place? He is not interested in being out there in it, like Turner lashing himself to the mast in a storm. He is not interested in being confronted by it, like Monet, grains of sand trapped in the oil paint as he works against the tide, cropping his image so radically the field of vision contains nothing but waves.
“Sargent’s sea is neither experimental nor abstract. It is not liquid and it has no volume or depth. It isn’t numinous or mysterious or unfathomably beautiful. It isn’t even expansive or wild. He seems, in short, to be indifferent to almost all of its obvious qualities, let alone its attractions for an artist. Indeed its pull seems mainly social: a chance to paint chubby little toddlers in water wings, and naked boys flat out on the beach. The latter are smooth, glib, picturesque; the former are sentimental nonsense.
“Which would have been a pretty good reason for leaving them out, except that the case for Sargent as a sea painter would have looked even thinner in terms of figures; as far as art is concerned, it seems his least interesting side. And an unfortunate aspect of this exhibition, given the curators’ eloquent enthusiasm in the catalogue, is that these early paintings only seem to prefigure the shortcomings of Sargent’s worst work: the lack of sincerity, the evasiveness, the faint boredom, the sense that everything is seen, but very little felt.”
“Sargent and the Sea,” Royal Academy of Arts, London. Through Sept. 26, 2010.