The Young Man and the Sea
By JOHN DeMERS
You haven’t really visited a museum exhibition until you’ve strolled about the halls, stopping at paintings that intrigue one or both of you, with the show’s curator.
At least that’s the conclusion I reached after touring Sargent and the Sea, its sibling Houston’s Sargents and its distant cousin, Prendergast in Italy, with Emily Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. In the case of both featured artists, the portrait master John Singer Sargent and the American-born Impressionist, Post-Impressionist or even Modernist Maurice Prendergast, there were a few things I expected but mostly things I didn’t expect. And there’s nothing quite like having the curator along to explain such things.
Sargent has been a favorite of mine for decades, he having mastered the art (literally) of painting portraits of people that somehow tell their whole life story. It might not be their real life story, Neff points out, but it was the one Sargent saw in them. The one, she added with a nudge, he was paid big bucks to see. And that brought me to my own starting point with Sargent: he was the chosen painter of what I call “rich guys’ wives,” a kind of celebrity himself by painting the portraits of celebrities. I’m reminded always of photographers like Richard Avedon, whose work attracted attention as much for being about movie and rock stars as for being technically excellent, which it was.
In this exhibition, however – the one focused on Sargent’s early paintings in and around the sea – we don’t see any of that. Mostly, I think, this was because he hadn’t charmed his way into the right circles yet. But it was also, artistically, an early phase he was going through. A couple of the pieces are even from his childhood, which is always impressive to see.
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 his career. Works in the exhibition were 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. The show focuses 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 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. Looking at these pictures, works by Turner, Whistler and even Winslow Homer spring to mind.
Sargent in Portrait Mode
Two paintings central to Sargent’s early career serve as a centerpiece of the MFAH exhibition: En Route pour la pêche (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 22. 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, Neff explained to me, and yet both paintings are the results of systematic and carefully calibrated artistic endeavor. Indeed, Sargent left behind no fewer than 12 preparatory and related works, which have been brought together for this exhibition.
Outside of New York and Boston, Houston happens to have the largest holding of Sargent paintings in private hands in the United States. The companion exhibit Houston’s Sargents showcases some 30 paintings from the private collections of Houstonians, including some of Sargent’s finest work. From paintings of a Spanish courtyard and a view of Venice to the famous society portraits on which he built his career, Houston’s Sargents presents a broad spectrum of the artist’s work to complement the exhibition Sargent and the Sea.
Prendergast in Italy, also currently on view at MFAH, is the first exhibition devoted entirely to the Italian watercolors, monotypes, and oil paintings by the American artist, featuring more than 60 views of Venice, Rome, Siena, and Capri. Prendergast in Italy also includes the artist’s personal sketchbooks, letters, photographs, and guidebooks from his two trips to Italy, in 1898 and 1911.
Prendergast was born in St. John’s Newfoundland and moved to Boston at age 10, where he was working as a commercial artist by 1886. He developed his mature style, however, during early trips abroad to France (1891-1895) and Italy (1898-99). Renowned for his paintings full of joie de vivre, the view of Italy that Prendergast presents was informed by French Impression and other European trends, but filtered through the eyes of an American artist and tourist encountering Venice for the first time. This exhibition demonstrates the advances of abstract color and form that put Prendergast on the cutting edge of American modernism.
Since the majority of the works in Prendergast in Italy are of Venice, the armchair traveler comes away from this exhibition with a vivid sense of that unique city, its canals, and famous monuments as seen through the eyes of an American on the forefront of 20th-century modernism. Five paintings are displayed so that both sides of the works are visible. These double-sided watercolors, in addition to many sketches, unfinished works, and archival materials, provide a special glimpse into the artist’s creative process. A large group of color monotypes showcases Prendergast’s daring approach and experimentation with the medium.
And finally, there’s my personal favorite in the show, a nighttime view of the Feast of the Redeemer on Venice’s Grand Canal, an Impressionistic-on-the-verge-of-Abstract vision of colorful lanterns slicing open the darkness. Watercolor and pencil? No. Monotype? No, not that either. Uniquely in all of Prendergast’s long lifetime of work, the picture is a tile mosaic. In a magical, not-very-Italian city graced with so many mosaics from its ancient Byzantine past, Prendergast discovered his most modern medium of all.
Prendergast’s Feast of the Redeemer