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Corcoran Gallery of Art Presents Seascapes and Coastal Scenes by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Beach at Capri, 1878, oil on panel. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Bequest of Frederick J. Hellman to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1965.32

WASHINGTON, DC.- Beginning September 12, the Corcoran Gallery of Art will feature more than 80 paintings, watercolors, and drawings depicting seascapes and coastal scenes from the early career of the pre­eminent late 19th century American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The exhibition will place the sea on center­stage and highlight the impact it had on Sargent’s career, the development of his style, and his artistic preferences.

Organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Sargent and the Sea brings together the artist’s early beach scenes and will be the first to examine, in great depth, the little explored marine paintings and drawings produced during the first five years of the artist’s career. A focal point of the exhibition is the Corcoran’s masterwork En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish), 1878, which will be accompanied by other works produced during, and inspired by, Sargent’s summer journeys from his home in Paris to Brittany, Normandy, and Capri, as well as two transatlantic voyages.

While Sargent is best known for his society portraits, Sargent and the Sea will focus on his personal passion for the sea and his knowledge of seafaring during the years 1874–1879, when the artist was between the ages of 18 and 23. Sargent’s two paintings depicting fisherfolk at Cancale (1878, Corcoran Gallery of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) are central works in the canon of the artist’s early career. However, recent discoveries of three important seascapes, and the location of other pictures previously untraced, have cast a new spotlight on Sargent’s activity as a maritime painter. It is no coincidence that he came from a New England family steeped in trade and shipping. His passion for the sea and his knowledge of seafaring are evident in this important group of early paintings, watercolors, and drawings. The extent and quality of his marine output will be a complete revelation to nearly all audiences, even to specialists in the field.

With the exception of the two well­known Cancale oils, Sargent’s seascapes have not been widely studied or reproduced, proving that even for a renowned, frequently published artist there is yet new material to be mined. Moreover, these pictures and their preparatory and related works have never been considered in the context of Sargent’s career in particular and the history of marine painting in general. Similarly, the artist’s work as a marine draughtsman has never been studied in relation to his output as a marine painter; for the first time, this project will relate his freely­handled marine drawings, large and small, to his watercolors, oil sketches, and finished oil paintings of marine subjects.

Sargent and the Sea will feature works produced by the artist drawn from both public and private collections within the United States as well as Europe. By presenting Sargent’s artistic career in conjunction with his personal fascination with the sea, this exhibition will reconcile these two paths of the artist’s life.

Sargent and the Sea is curated by Sarah Cash, Bechhoefer Curator of American Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who is responsible for the portion of the Corcoran’s world­renowned collection of American painting, sculpture, and works on paper dating from 1760–1980. At the Corcoran, Cash has organized the loan exhibitions Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art (traveled 2005–2007); Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation (2004); and Albert Bierstadt’s California Scenery, Sunset View (2003). She has curated many exhibitions from the Corcoran’s permanent collection, including The Gilded Cage: Views of American Women, 1873–1921 (2002), and has coordinated the Corcoran’s presentation of numerous major traveling exhibitions. She has authored the Abbeville Press book American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (2000); co­authored a Third Millennium Press book called A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran
Gallery of Art (2002); and has edited many publications and delivered numerous lectures. Prior to arriving at the Corcoran, Cash held positions at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph­Macon Woman’s College; the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the National Gallery of Art; the Yale University Art Gallery; and the National Portrait Gallery. Cash received her B.A. in Art History from Smith College and an M.A. from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.

Richard Ormond, grandnephew of the artist and a leading Sargent scholar who has directed and jointly authored all five (of the projected eight) volumes of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, is serving as consulting curator for the exhibition. Ormond served as director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from 1986 to 2000, and, prior to that, as deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Over the past 27 years Ormond has been working to complete the Sargent catalogue raisonné; the exhibition Sargent and the Sea is enriched by his latest research.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was the most fashionable portrait painter working in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century. Raised by expatriate American parents, he studied in Paris with the portrait painter Carolus­Duran, soon distinguishing himself by his keenness of eye and facility of hand. Sargent spent his summers painting outdoor figure sketches and landscapes in a modernist and experimental vein. The studies made during these travels inspired a succession of exhibition pictures, including En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish)..

Portraiture, however, became Sargent’s chosen sphere, and by 1900 he was the leading society portrait painter on both sides of the Atlantic, the “van Dyck of our times” as Auguste Rodin called him. The Corcoran’s portraits Madame Edouard Pailleron (1879) and Mrs. Henry White (1883) exemplify his incisive bravura style, enriched with Impressionist qualities of light and color. His dazzling portrayals presented his sitters in real spaces, capturing moments of arrested movement, and his ability to record what he saw with all the force of a first impression was matched to powers of large­scale composition and an intuitive feeling for character and status. His most famous work was a portrait of the celebrated beauty Mme Gautreau (1884, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), which created a scandal when it was exhibited (as Madame X) at the Paris Salon of that year.

In 1890 Sargent began a mural cycle at the Boston Public Library which, along with a later one at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was to occupy a large part of his energies for the rest of his life; the Corcoran owns many pencil studies for the two mural cycles. After 1900 he spent his summers on long sketching holidays in the Alps, creating compositions such as the Corcoran’s Simplon Pass (1911).

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August 23, 2009

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