Sunday, 3 January 2010

Washington, DC, The Corcoran Gallery of Art

On December 16, on the way to see the exhibition Sargent and the Sea, I wandered into the Corcoran's exhibition of its own collection of 19th century American sculpture, which included some wonderful bronzes by Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (1878-1942), women artists who are known but not famous.

The Young Mother

Eberle, By the Sea
I continued to wander through the Corcoran's very strong permanent collection and rediscovered its diversity and quality. Because the Corcoran has associated itself so strongly with contemporary art in recent years, it is always a surprise to find the strength of its European and earlier American collections. After wandering delightedly through a couple of rooms hung salon style and visiting the Salon Dore, the 18th century French drawing room, I decided to stop myself at a painting I wanted to overlook. It's Renoir's View from Cap Martin of Monte Carlo, 1884. I took a snapshot, which can only serve as a reminder of the object.

Not being particularly interested in Renoir, I decided to see what I could like in this painting and immediately found myself surprised at how much there was. I thought of comparing it to a photograph and found that the painting was far more interesting than a photographic image of the scene might have been. Of course, in Renoir's time the photograph would have been black and white, losing most of what is delicious about the painting. The colors of the sea, partly greenish and partly turquoise, capture the best that water can be. Blue infiltrates the green of the vegetation and pink colors the sea and the sky. The surface of the painting shows the textures of the individual brush strokes, which suggest the movement of a slight breeze in the trees and the flow of the tide. The work is both visual and tactile. Because the bushes are in the way, revealing only a bit of the water and covering the left part of the town, you feel like the image is captured on the fly, as you might glimpse it driving around the bay into town; at the same time he allows you to see enough to understand the entire view. The painting calls to mind the sensations of the seaside and summer as well as the pleasures of brushstrokes and color.

I did finally get to the Sargent exhibition, which was both informative and a bit disappointing. The publicity refers to more than 80 works in the show, but a great many of them are drawings and sketches of fishing villages, sailing and steamships, ports, and boats on water. These sketches evoke the young artist capturing what he sees in many media, but barely suggest his virtuoso paint handling. Many of the paintings are small and not many of them capture the froth and brilliant light of Sargent's later work. For some reason I expected that the exhibition would include some watercolors of Venice, but I guess the canals there are not strictly "sea," and watercolor was not a significant component of this exhibition. Many of the smaller works came from a private collection or collections and seemed to be recent discoveries; the exhibition provided a unique opportunity to see this group of objects together and a focused look at an aspect of Sargent's early work. A map at the entrance indicated the significant travels that Sargent made around Europe between 1874 and 1880 in order to complete all his sea-related pictures, to Nice, Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Capri, Tangier, Spain, Beuzeval (France), Cancale and other villages on the Brittany coast.

The exhibition includes many studies for its centerpiece, Sargent's Setting Out to Fish, a masterpiece in the Corcoran collection  that is shown next to another, smaller version, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's Fishing for Oysters at Cancale. Comparing the two works to each other and to the studies was entertaining and revealed how Sargent used sketches and modified his paintings depending on where he intended to show them. So, while on the one hand, the exhibition was visually a bit disappointing, on the other it provided a rather detailed look at the way Sargent approached a painting, the subjects that at least in part interested him in his early career, and the various media he used as he was developing as an artist. It was a good scholarly show and I would have found it particularly interesting in a university art museum context.

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