Sunday 1 August 2010

The One I'd Have Stolen

Last week I dropped in on the Sargent and the Sea exhibition at the Royal Academy. It's no surprise that it's doing good business - the dash and verve of Sargent's paintings are instantly attractive, and much of his art, on closer examination, delivers more than surface attraction. With Sargent, one senses that there's always more to uncover - and this exhibition uncovers something unfamiliar: Sargent as a painter of the sea. Here are mid-Atlantic seascapes, including the bravura Atlantic Storm of 1876 (the poster image for the exhibition); an accomplished Normandy showpiece, En Route pour la Peche, in various versions and preparatory sketches, and an uncharacteristically Boudinesque beach scene; sunshot paintings of naked boys on Capri which are sometimes uncomfortably close to a more openly pornographic school of painting (and photography); and a wide range of brilliantly drawn sketches reflecting Sargent's knowledgable fascination with sails, decks and rigging, all the paraphernalia of shipboard and quayside life. These drawings are a joy to examine, and some of them have been digitised, blown up and illuminated on a light box - a brilliant (supplementary) way of displaying drawings. It was the last room of the exhibition - devoted to Ports and Harbours - that gave me most pleasure, and made the whole thing worthwhile (indeed, without it I'd have felt a little short-changed). Here were a selection of Sargent's wonderfully luminous watercolours, painted with extraordinary freedom and dash, wet on wet - one of them, Venice, Sailing Boat (above), was definitely the picture I'd have stolen (were I, that is, an art thief, which, I hasten to add, I am not). Also in this room was a big oil painting of Whitby Fishing Boats (in grey weather) done in thin delicate washes in the manner of Whistler's seascapes. It would be good to have an exhibition on Whistler and the Sea (or Whistler and Water anyway), but I doubt it will ever happen - there wasn't even a full-scale exhibition to mark his centenary in 2003. Somehow he'll never be the crowd puller Sargent apparently is.


  1. I'm big on nautical paintings - habours, ports, tall ships, seagulls, desolate beaches. Even slightly naff cheap ones of sailing ships do it for me. Genre art. I'd happily nick that Sargant too.

    Also Alfred Sisley's Port Marly, which looks a lovely lonely salty spot.

  2. Wow - looks like it's flooded!