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)



  1. So brilliant! One Singer-Sargent quote I think Robert put in one letter was “the thing about portraits is there is always something wrong with the mouth!” As a portrait painter this quote is often on my mind. I love his use of light and shadow and I keep striving for that same effortless look.

  2. The Oyster Gatherers piece looks like a study prior to his famous “Oyster Gatherers of Cancale” which I have always thought to be one of the most perfect paintings ever created. Sargent is always an inspiration and he spent several days in the Canadian Rockies painting and complaining about the weather. He and Bob would have been wonderful companions at Lake O’Hara!
    My favourite story about Sargent is that he wore a groove into the floor of his studio walking back 20 feet to check the effect of each brushstroke before putting on the next one. A consummate craftsperson!

  3. I remember going to this same show many years and being thrilled by it. Perhaps not all your readers know that the Corcoran Gallery pr se is no longer in existence. Its collection was partly absorbed by the National Gallery of Art, with the lesser pieces distributed to a variety of area museums, and its art school was subsumed by the George Washington University, which also operates the beautiful old building, with some special exhibitions in a program which is yet evolving.
    I’ll keep memories of the Corcoran and its wonderful special exhibitions, as well as its collection – I can still see some of my favorites, such as Church’s Niagara Falls and Bierstadt’s Mt. Corcoran, which have been integrated with the National Galleery’s holdings a few blocks away.
    And I’ll think that perhaps your Dad and his friend were there the day I was.

  4. Thank you for posting this letter. I had not heard of Sargent until I went on an elementary school field trip with my boy’s class. I was amazed at his wonderful paintings and have been a great fan of his ever since.
    While reading the letter, I had this image of Robert and his friend fishing again, and then (why not) John Singer Sargent fishing as well.
    Best wishes,

  5. Gwen Williams on

    I’m a portrait artist (sixty years give or take) and Sargent has been my absolute favourite artist since I was very young. My favourites are not the wonderful expressive portraits, but his quick water colour sketches of people, boats and sunlit buildings in the Mediterranean. Apparently, he didn’t think much of them personally, but they are wonderful. Not many people know that he was also a war artist as well.

    Many thanks for your continued newsletter, I love it

    Gwen Williams, Pickering Ontario

  6. Sargent is my most respected muse however in recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the similar style of Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla. I expect Sorolla was influenced by Sargent’s work as were many artists over the last 100 years

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