A Lesson From Sargent

114-John-Singer-Sargent.jpgRecently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the current exhibit “Sargent and the Sea” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. What a treat! Being a life-long fan of the expatriate master, I have tried, whenever possible, to experience his original work firsthand. As useful as books may be—especially for those of us who live in areas that don’t afford easy access to major museums—these can be our best resource—there is nothing like standing in the presence of the original work. It’s always easy to identify the other painters in the museums and galleries; they are the ones closely analyzing the paintings as if they were on their own easels.In recent years, John Singer Sargent has gained in popularity and is being given the due respect many of us felt he always deserved. Although best known for his society portraits, this exhibit explores his other works, many of which represent his love of the landscape and document his travels to exotic locations.


The Corcoran has brought together more than 80 marine paintings and drawings from his early years as an artist, 1874 to 1879, when he was 18 through 23 years of age. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the larger of two oils depicting fisher-folk at Cancale, France, painted in 1878. This painting is in the permanent collection of the Corcoran and the smaller version is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Recent discoveries of other seascapes and pictures have brought new attention to his work around these themes.

Not all of the reviewers have been overly impressed with this exhibit, but I think anyone who paints will find it informative and inspirational. What impressed me the most was the volume of sketches and studies executed in advance of the paintings. Sargent experiemnted with composition elements, adjusted figures, adding and sometimes deleting elements. Over this five-year period of time, while he was still working on his other subjects, he amassed innumerable studies and sketches, reinforcing his passion for his craft and his constant work ethic.

Many of us wish we were as good as Sargent but are not willing to invest the time and effort into the study he did throughout his life. After visiting this exhibit, I was both humbled and motivated to sketch, and to think more in advance of making my pastel marks. Next week, I have an opportunity to paint with a group of friends in a remote location in eastern Oregon for a few days. Instead of focusing on finished paintings, I plan to sketch and produce field studies. Hopefully, I will be able to suppress the urge to rush ahead to a signature. Good intentions are one thing, but the passion of the moment another.

“Sargent and the Sea” will be showing through January 3, 2010, then it travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from February 14 to May 23, 2010, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, England from July 10 to September 26, 2010. For more information and a slideshow, visit the Corcoran online.

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One thought on “A Lesson From Sargent

  1. wendilee heath obrien

    Dear Richard,
    I just want to tell you I appreciate your blog. Thank you for doing it.
    Your words are a wonderful, constant whisper reminding me what is easy to loose when working isolated from others who are deeply engaged in the thinking, analyzing, creating and appreciating of art.
    Do you ever come to Downeast Maine?