Sargent and the Sea at The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

. February 16, 2010

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will feature more than 80 paintings, watercolors, and drawings of seascapes and coastal scenes from the early career of the pre-eminent late-19th-century American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856—1925), open through May 23, 2010. Following a presentation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this fall, Houston´s showing is the final stop in the United States before the exhibition travels to London´s Royal Academy. Dr. Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American Painting and Sculpture, organizes the Houston showing, which is complemented by Houston´s Sargents: a show of some 30 Sargent works from private Houston collections.

John Singer Sargent, American, (born Italy, 1856-1925), “The Derelict”, c. 1876. Oil on canvas. Private Collection

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 the artist´s 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.

“John Singer Sargent built his formidable reputation on his now-legendary portraits of society figures and powerful personalities, but this exhibition reveals that it´s the sea that first captivated the young artist,” said MFAH Director Dr. Peter C. Marzio. “Together with Prendergast in Italy, the exhibitions also remind us of how enduring European subject matter was for these two preeminent American artists.”

“Sargent and the Sea draws work from a wide range of public and private collections in the United States and Europe, and is the first exhibition to provide such an extensive look at Sargent´s exquisite but lesser-known depictions of coast and sea. In this show we are introduced to a forgotten chapter of Sargent´s life for the very first time,” added Neff. “In addition, the works borrowed from notable Houston collections will cast a view onto the extraordinary paintings—both portraits and landscapes— in private hands in this city.”

While Sargent is best known for his society portraits, Sargent and the Sea will focus 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.

John Singer Sargent, En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish), 1878, oil on canvas. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund 17.2.

Two works central to the canon of the artist´s early career serve as a centerpiece of the 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 twenty-two. 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 and yet both paintings are the results of systematic and carefully calibrated artistic endeavor; indeed, Sargent left behind no fewer than twelve preparatory and related works, which have been brought together for this exhibition.

With the exception of the two well-known Cancale oils, Sargent´s seascapes have not been widely studied or reproduced, proving that even for a renowned, frequently published artist there is yet new material to be mined. Moreover, these pictures and their preparatory and related works have never been considered in the context of Sargent´s career and the history of marine painting in general. Similarly, the artist´s work as a marine draughtsman has never been studied in relation to his output as a marine painter; for the first time, this project will relate his freely handled marine drawings, large and small, to his watercolors, oil sketches, and finished oil paintings of marine subjects.

Sargent and the Sea will feature works produced by the artist drawn from both public and private collections within the United States as well as Europe. By presenting Sargent´s artistic career in conjunction with his personal fascination with the sea, this exhibition will reconcile these two paths of the artist´s life.

Houston´s Sargents
Outside of New York and Boston, Houston has the largest holding of Sargent paintings in private hands in the United States. 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 Sargent built his career, Houston´s Sargents presents a broad spectrum of the artist´s work to complement the exhibition Sargent and the Sea.

About the Artist
John Singer Sargent (1856—1925) was the most fashionable portrait painter working in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century. Born in Florence, Italy and reared by expatriate American parents, he studied in Paris with the portrait painter Carolus-Duran, soon distinguishing himself by his keenness of eye and facility of hand. Sargent spent his summers painting outdoor figure sketches and landscapes in a modernist and experimental vein. The studies made during these travels inspired a succession of exhibition pictures, including En Route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish). Portraiture, however, became Sargent´s chosen sphere, and by 1900 he was the leading society portrait painter on both sides of the Atlantic, the “van Dyck of our times” as Auguste Rodin called him. The MFAH´s portrait of Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (1899) exemplifies his incisive bravura style, enriched with Impressionist qualities of light and color.

His dazzling portrayals presented his sitters in real spaces, capturing moments of arrested movement, and his ability to record what he saw with all the force of a first impression was matched to powers of large-scale composition and an intuitive feeling for character and status. His most famous work was a portrait of the celebrated beauty Mme Gautreau (1884, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), which created a scandal when it was exhibited (as Madame X) at the Paris Salon of that year.

In 1890 Sargent began a mural cycle at the Boston Public Library which, along with a later one at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was to occupy a large part of his energies for the rest of his life. After 1900 he spent his summers on long sketching holidays in the Alps. Sargent died in 1925 in London.

International Tour
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: September 12, 2009—January 3, 2010
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX): February 14—May 23, 2010
Royal Academy of Arts, London: July 10—September 26, 2010

About the Catalogue
A full-color catalogue, Sargent and the Sea, features essays by Ormond and Cash; Stephanie L. Herdrich, former Research Associate, American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Marc Simpson, Associate Director, Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and Curator of American Art, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute.

Sargent and the Sea is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and made possible by the generous support of the Terra Foundation for American Art, Christie´s, The Mr. & Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc., and Altria Group, Inc. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by the American Masterpieces initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts and The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation.

In Houston, this exhibition has received generous funding from:The MFAH Benefactors of American Art; Nancy and Rich Kinder; Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Hevrdejs; Cherie and Jim Flores; Mr. and Mrs. T. R. Reckling III; Carla Knobloch; Mr. and Mrs. Michael C. Linn; and Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson.

Education programs for this exhibition are made possible by the Favrot Fund.

Also on View: Prendergast in Italy
Prendergast in Italy, the first exhibition devoted entirely to the watercolors, monotypes, and oil paintings by American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast, will also open at the MFAH on February 14, 2010. Featuring over 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.

Upcoming Exhibitions at the MFAH
• Prendergast in Italy February 14 — May 9, 2010
• Ruptures and Continuities: Photography Made After 1960 from the MFAH Collection February 21—May 9, 2010
• 2010 Core Exhibition March 5—April 16, 2010 (Glassell School of Art)
• Alice Neel: Painted Truths March 21 — June 13, 2010
• Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam May 16—August 8, 2010
• Charles M. Russell: The Masterworks in Oil and Bronze June 6 — August 29, 2010

MFAH Collections
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the largest art museum in America south of Chicago, west of Washington, D.C., and east of Los Angeles. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers nearly 60,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present. Featured are the finest artistic examples of the major civilizations of Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Italian Renaissance paintings, French Impressionist works, photographs, American and European decorative arts, African and Pre-Columbian gold, American art, and European and American paintings and sculpture from post-1945 are particularly strong holdings. Recent additions to the collections include Rembrandt van Rijn´s Portrait of a Young Woman (1633), the Heiting Collection of Photography, a major suite of Gerhard Richter paintings, an array of important works by Jasper Johns, a rare, second-century Hellenistic bronze Head of Poseidon/Antigonos Doson, major canvases by 19th-century painters Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner, Albert Bierstadt´s Indians Spear Fishing (1862), distinguished work by the leading 20th- and 21st-century Latin American artists, and The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art.

MFAH Hours and Admission
Hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m.—5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.—9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.—7 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:15—7 p.m. The museum is closed on Monday, except for holidays. Admission to this exhibition is included with general admission to the museum. General admission is $7 for adults and $3.50 for children 6-18, students, and senior adults (65+); admission is free for children 5 and under. Admission is free on Thursday, courtesy of Shell Oil Company Foundation. Admission is free on Saturday and Sunday for children 18 and under with a Houston Public Library Power Card or any other library card.

General Information:
For information, the public may call 713-639-7300, or visit For information in Spanish, call 713-639-7379. TDD/TYY for the hearing impaired, call 713-639-7390. For membership information, call 713-639-7550 or email

Category: Fine Art

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