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Unknown Sargent Revealed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
John Singer Sargent, American, (born Italy, 1856-1925), "The Derelict", c. 1876. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
HOUSTON, TX.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will feature more than 80 paintings, watercolors, and drawings of seascapes and coastal scenes from the early career of the pre-eminent late-19th-century American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856—1925), from February 14 to May 23, 2010. Following a presentation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this fall, Houstonīs showing is the final stop in the United States before the exhibition travels to Londonīs Royal Academy. Dr. Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American Painting and Sculpture, organizes the Houston showing, which is complemented by Houstonīs Sargents: a show of some 30 Sargent works from private Houston collections.

Sargent and the Sea brings together the artistīs 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 artistīs career. Works in the exhibition were produced during, and inspired by, Sargentīs summer journeys from his home in Paris to Brittany, Normandy, and Capri, as well as two transatlantic voyages.

"John Singer Sargent built his formidable reputation on his now-legendary portraits of society figures and powerful personalities, but this exhibition reveals that itīs the sea that first captivated the young artist," said MFAH Director Dr. Peter C. Marzio. "Together with Prendergast in Italy, the exhibitions also remind us of how enduring European subject matter was for these two preeminent American artists."

"Sargent and the Sea draws work from a wide range of public and private collections in the United States and Europe, and is the first exhibition to provide such an extensive look at Sargentīs exquisite but lesser-known depictions of coast and sea. In this show we are introduced to a forgotten chapter of Sargentīs life for the very first time," added Neff. "In addition, the works borrowed from notable Houston collections will cast a view onto the extraordinary paintings—both portraits and landscapes— in private hands in this city."

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, expressed as a young artist in his late teens and early 20s, during the years 1874—1880. Recent discoveries of three important seascapes, and the location of other pictures previously untraced, including Atlantic Sunset; The Derelict; and Seascape, have cast a new spotlight on Sargentīs 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.

Two works central to the canon of the artistīs early career serve as a centerpiece of the exhibition: En Route pour la pęche (Setting out to Fish) and Fishing for Oysters at Cancale, exhibited, respectively, at the prestigious Paris Salon of 1878, and the Society of American Artists in New York that same year, when the artist was just twenty-two. Although there are differences between the paintings, both depict a sun-filled scene of women and children getting ready to gather the fruits of the sea left behind at low tide in the Breton village of Cancale. There is a quality of immediacy and freshness in the scene and yet both paintings are the results of systematic and carefully calibrated artistic endeavor; indeed, Sargent left behind no fewer than twelve preparatory and related works, which have been brought together for this exhibition.

With the exception of the two well-known Cancale oils, Sargentīs 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 Sargentīs career and the history of marine painting in general. Similarly, the artistīs 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 freely handled 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 Sargentīs artistic career in conjunction with his personal fascination with the sea, this exhibition will reconcile these two paths of the artistīs life.

Houstonīs Sargents
Outside of New York and Boston, Houston has the largest holding of Sargent paintings in private hands in the United States. Houstonīs Sargents showcases some 30 paintings from the private collections of Houstonians, including some of Sargentīs finest work. From paintings of a Spanish courtyard and a view of Venice to the famous society portraits on which Sargent built his career, Houstonīs Sargents presents a broad spectrum of the artistīs work to complement the exhibition Sargent and the Sea.

John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent (1856—1925) was the most fashionable portrait painter working in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century. Born in Florence, Italy and reared by expatriate American parents, he studied in Paris with the portrait painter Carolus-Duran, 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 pęche (Setting Out to Fish). Portraiture, however, became Sargentīs 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 MFAHīs portrait of Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (1899) exemplifies 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 large-scale 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. After 1900 he spent his summers on long sketching holidays in the Alps. Sargent died in 1925 in London.

International Tour
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: September 12, 2009—January 3, 2010
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX): February 14—May 23, 2010
Royal Academy of Arts, London: July 10—September 26, 2010

The Museum of Fine Arts | John Singer Sargent | Dr. Emily Ballew Neff | American Painting and Sculpture |


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