Sargent and the Sea at the RA

A Boat in the Waters off Capri, John Singer Sargent, 1878

Every season has its delights, its specialities. This weekend there is a definite feel of seasons turning, summer finally receding into something less exceptional. The morning air has lost that laundered quality it has in the height of summer. Not that I’m not looking forward to winter (the cosy indoorness, the cold, dark evenings and twinkling lights) but when it comes to weather, extremes are best, and even for an optimist this in-between period in our rainy isle is just less good.

So for those depressed by the onset of the mediocrity of autumn, for a last burst of summer, there are a number of options. One: go on holiday to somewhere not too far flung. Spain or Greece are achievable and still pleasantly warm. Two: try a sun bed. Perhaps not recommended by doctors, although I can’t see that the occasional vitamin D top-up is really that bad for us sun-starved Brits. Or, three, and less expensive than either of the previous two: visit the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the Royal Academy, before it closes on the 26th September.

Don’t be scared: this isn’t a marathon retrospective, it won’t take more than an hour. It’s just a very well-structured collection of some truly excellent paintings; specifically, a survey across the years that draws out Sargent’s depictions of the sea. Sounds promisingly romantic.

What is clear from the displays of early sketchbooks and essays in oil is that his was a prodigious talent already mature by the age of twenty. A product of his environment, Sargent’s American parents were cultural itinerants, his childhood spent touring Europe: a privileged upbringing in which any artistic inclination was sure to be nurtured. However that is not to downplay his achievements. His works display an impressive combination of sensitivity, accuracy of observation and judgement – never too detailed, he deploys enough impressionistic flair to allow the true sense of his scenes to emerge, somehow more powerfully than in the literalness of photography.

Sargent is neither the first or last artist to have been fascinated by the qualities of light and provoked to capture its effects – particularly on water. It is the pinnacle of painterly challenge to successfully convey in static the essence of an effect whose magic lies in constant motion. However from many of these paintings, the sun radiates into the grey-white gallery space of the Sackler wing. The glittering light and saturating heat of the Mediterranean summer; the mix of nausea and awe in his vertiginous paintings of a mid-Atlantic storm, prow plummeting down the side of wave-mountains; multiple seaside and harbour scenes, some (although not all) extraordinary for their vibrancy within a limited palette. The locations, the genus loci, are suffused in the paintings, so even without labels they would be identifiable: the delicate scenery and figures of Brittany, the northern light and clog-wearing fisherwomen, slender waists and ankles, compared with the lazy luxury of the Capri paintings – children like cherubs, and sunbathing figures looking almost stricken by the heat, against azure seas and dramatic rockfaces.

This is the kind of artist with whom the non-artist can fundamentally identify – he may have been a paid professional, renowned for his society portraiture, but these paintings emphasise his basic creative motivation; someone for whom the highest credit he could pay to what he saw as the inherent beauty of the world around him was to commit it to canvas. These everyday scenes are so precious they have to be captured. Except perhaps in always eluding complete capture, the artist’s work is never done.

This is also the kind of exhibition that makes you want to pick up a pencil and an untouched sketchbook and have a go yourself. From experience I know that the results are invariably mediocre at best: my lines are always ugly and awkward and not at all how I want them to be. There is a fatal breakdown in communication between intention and hand. So it is all the more impressive when you come across such a brilliant draughtsman, an artist whose hand appears to absolutely obey the will of his eye and brain, to perfectly channel his emotional response to the world around him.

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