There was an affinity between 19th-century painters and the sea. Perhaps it was the sparkling light that attracted them, maybe the holiday mood or that sense of confronting a mysterious, alien, almost infinite element.
The latest to have his maritime works examined in a closely focused exhibition is John Singer Sargent.
“Sargent and the Sea” at the Royal Academy in London is a good show to look at on a hot summer day. It’s not too heavy, easily digestible, and features beguiling painting. On the other hand, in terms of content, it’s lightweight -- even skimpy -- and leaves you with a dissatisfied feeling, as Sargent often does.
Sargent (1856-1925) started off, as this exhibition does, brilliantly. In 1876, he crossed the Atlantic for the first time to visit the U.S. (like Whistler, he was a nominally American artist who spent most of his life elsewhere).
Those voyages by liner produced some wonderful and precocious pictures. “Atlantic Sunset” (c. 1876) catches the ocean in a moment of calm, the water shimmering like satin; “Atlantic Storm” (1876) is a scene out of a Herman Melville novel, looking back from the stern of the ship, with a white wake stretching out between the tumbling blue mounds of the waves.
The trouble is that these early works are the peak of the exhibition. There are some other fine things. “Whitby Fishing Boats” (1884) is an example of Sargent’s accuracy with tone, akin to perfect pitch in music. He places a few black silhouettes of ships on brushy bands of blue-gray and, voila, a huge expanse of light and air appears.
That picture is close to Whistler’s paintings of the bay at Valparaiso from 1866. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced, of course, though with Sargent you get the feeling that he spent too much time doing virtuoso performances of other artists’ styles (a lot of his best portraits are an Edwardian riff on Van Dyck).
Also, he tended to play it safe. His entry for the Paris Salon of 1878, intended to please the public and the critics, was “Setting Out to Fish.” It’s just a bit duller and more conventional than the other sea pictures. He has given it a Monet sky, but the figures of the fisherwomen hanging about on a chilly looking beach are in a more mainstream 19th-century taste. Sargent was prepared to be daring, though only to a certain extent -- and that in retrospect was a weakness.
There was an enormous appetite in the 19th century for pictures of people on beaches. There was also a big market for paintings of naked children bathing. Taboos and moral boundaries have changed. What was regarded as the most charming and innocent of subjects in the 1870s is now likely to result in a visit from Scotland Yard, as happened last year at Tate Modern.
That won’t happen at the RA, of course, because Sargent’s “Neapolitan Children Bathing” (1879) is a painting not a photograph, and old rather than new. Leaving contemporary feelings about images of children to one side, there’s something yucky about that and the similar pictures in the show. Still, behind the sentimentalized urchins on the sand, there’s a terrific evocation of the blue-green Mediterranean in the sun.
As often, you feel Sargent was capable of being so good that he could have done better than he actually did.
“Sargent and the Sea” is at the Royal Academy in London through Sept. 26. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk. The show is sponsored by Japan Tobacco Inc.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)