Sargent and the Sea, Royal Academy of Arts, London
Shore signs of a fish out of water
Wednesday 07 July 2010
The sea is no longer a fashionable subject for young painters. Nor is the subject particularly saleable. When did you last see a seascape in a group show of work by young artists? When did you last see an easel on Eastbourne beach?
In the last quarter of the 19th century, things were quite otherwise. From about 1860 onwards, sea fever gripped many French painters – the new rail route from Paris made the seaside a fashionable venue for the well-heeled. The painters followed. The sea became a fashionable context for aristocratic clowning in over-heavy frocks. The Impressionists were besotted by the sea for its own sake, because it was so protean. It made light dance. From the point of view of colour, it never stopped changing into something else. It was such a near impossible challenge, imaginatively and technically.
In 1874 the young John Singer Sargent, the 18-year-old, Florence-born son of rich, ex-pat Americans who believed in the inexhaustible marvellousness of the Old World, made his first paintings of the sea off the coast of northern France, and this new show at the Royal Academy shows him trying to get to grips with this subject matter, on and off – in France and Italy – over a period of about a quarter of a century. Generally speaking, it is not a success story. Sargent hugely admired Turner, but he could not paint like him – his sketched copy of a Turner in this show is nothing more than slavish. Turner, unlike Sargent, couldn't paint people. They should have shared their talents.
In spite of the fact that the young Sargent was painting at the same time as the Impressionists, he did not seem to profit by their example. Perhaps he didn't even see their work. They were not well known in those days. His paintings of the sea, from first to last, are rather grey and leaden and slow-moving. He looks as if he is laboring over these waters, that they are forever trickling through his fingers. There is almost nothing which is light and fresh here. What is more, he seems not to know quite how to do it. He keeps on changing his mind. The elemental is simply not his bag.
In Filet et Barque, he pocks and dabs and dibbles around, sometimes using long strokes, sometimes short. There is no consistency here. Perhaps he was dreaming about several different seas simultaneously as he bothered his way across the surface of the canvas. The mood of the show is not helped by the grey walls, which close the paintings in on each other. Or, indeed, by the rather tepid endorsements of the works in the quotations and descriptive panels. There is no real sense of expansiveness here, no feeling that Sargent is positively exhilarated by his subject matter.
Until he includes people. Once that happens, his palette lightens, and things begin to feel fresh and breezily captured on the wing. Look, for example, at the gallery devoted to the time he spent at Cancale. The figure painting is fresh and good. He knows how one bedizened human being works in relation to another. Solid ground at last!
To 26 September (020 7300 8000)
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Does the path to true love really lie in these 36 questions?
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Presidential optical illusion offers clues to how brain processes faces
- 5 Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Costa Book Awards: H is for Hawk named book of the year
Run DMC's Darryl McDaniels: 'Kendrick Lamar is killing it - but radios are too afraid to play him'
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Louise Mensch says 'F**K YOU' in explosive tweets about David Cameron, Saudi Embassy and the Queen over King Abdullah tributes