Sargent and the sea


Dear Artist,

A good friend, Ron Longstaffe, now passed away, was an off-and-on fishing companion. A significant collector of what we amusingly called low- and medium-skilled art, he and I frequently whiled away boat hours discussing the virtues of his multi-million dollar collection. As he didn’t care for my work and didn’t have any to speak of, we always felt we could be quite straightforward with each other. Finely art-literate for a capitalist, he surprised me one day when he told me he didn’t know John Singer Sargent painted landscapes. “I thought he was just a society portrait painter,” he said.


“Oyster Gatherers Returning”
(also known as Mussel Gatherers) ca. 1877
oil on canvas by
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Needless to say, I tried to set him straight. I told him Sargent was an idealist whose heart was often in the mountains or out at sea. I mentioned that he quit portraiture — with dozens of commissions in his calendar — so he could paint commonplace motifs that simply appealed to him, often en plein air.

I’m laptopping you from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. Right now there’s a terrific retrospective here called “Sargent and the Sea.” It’s loaded with fresh watercolours and oils, including beach scenes with children and nudes, derelict boats, and frightening storms from some of his ocean crossings. Sargent was an obsessive sketcher, and the show is enriched with 80 drawings and scrapbook sketches.


“Boy on the Beach, Capri”
oil on panel, ca.1878
by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), while often batted about by current trends and the expectations of his fans, was also a self-motivated individualist of considerable character and lofty personal standards. As a young man freshly emerged from the school of Carolus-Duran in Paris, critics said he had nothing more to learn. Indeed, it seems he could plop himself down pretty well anywhere and turn out a creditable work. As all good retrospectives do, this one at the Corcoran gives us a few off-the-cuff losers as well as a feast of winners. Perhaps a private conceit, Sargent’s goal was always to make work look effortless, and in those odd times when he didn’t quite make it, there’s a little flash of hope for mortals like us.

My friend Ron was a lover of all cursory remarks. I’m wishing he were here with me now.


“Boat with the Golden Sail, San Vigilio”
1913 oil on canvas
by John Singer Sargent

Best regards,


PS: “Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.” (John Singer Sargent)

Esoterica: There are three creative sources in this show. The first is the obviously contrived salon pieces that were carefully built up and monumentalized from previous sketches. Then there are other, also contrived, pieces where he attempts to make a casual effect, as in a snapshot. The third are cropped slices of what was presented before him — exercises in light, design, pattern, and line — in the service of understanding the nature of things. “Make the best of an emergency,” said Sargent. These small emergencies are a joy to behold.

This letter was originally published as “Sargent and the Sea” on October 23, 2009, which includes more images below the letter and 3 creative sources with descriptions.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it toward the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.” (John Singer Sargent)