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Relief in Hard Times: Sargent’s Calm Seas

At a time when stress is high and finances are low, the tranquil seascapes of a 19th-century painter may be just what the doctor ordered.

The “Sargent and the Sea— exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art assembles, for the first time in Corcoran history, a collection of more than 80 marine paintings, watercolors and sketches from the pre-eminent painter John Singer Sargent.

Richard Ormond, grandnephew of the artist and a leading Sargent scholar, described Sargent as a visual painter who transcribed the real world in a vivid way. He was very tactile and unafraid to explore new ideas, Ormond said.

Although Sargent was renowned for his masterful portraiture, he always said that people didn’t give him credit for “the inside,— Ormond said. Because most of Sargent’s work depicted landscapes and portraiture, many critics of his time considered him more of a technical artist than a creative wonder.

Ormond challenges this perception, referencing the tremendous artistic imagination that went into crafting the mural scene located in the Sargent Rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

At a press opening for the exhibition, Ormond also offered a bit of advice for those who plan to visit the display. “Just let yourself go. Don’t worry about art history. Just observe with the eye, the mind can come in later.—

In many ways Sargent embraced a similar carefree point of view when he explored his own sources of artistic inspiration. Without inhibition, he painted his passion.

Sargent’s love affair with images of the sea and knowledge of seafaring developed during the late 1870s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s, and was inspired by summer family vacations from his home in Paris to Brittany and Normandy in France and Capri, Italy, and a couple of trans-Atlantic excursions. While the Sargents were American, they spent most of their years abroad.

Although the focal point of the exhibition is the Corcoran’s masterpiece “En Route pour la pêche— (“Setting Out to Fish—), 1878, the painting that stands out the most is “Seascape with Rocks,— 1875-1877. A more muted and serene view of a peaceful shore underscored the theme of this groundbreaking exhibition.

Sarah Cash, Bechhoefer Curator of American Art at the Corcoran, does a brilliant job of both showcasing the range of Sargent’s technical skill as a draftsman and a painter and featuring his creative process through a multimedia “inspiration gallery— that takes visitors of all ages through a hands-on and educational journey into the world of the most formidable artist of his era.

The interactive gallery displays Sargent’s original scrapbook protected behind a glass case and its digital replica that allows visitors to thumb through postcards, photographs and other items used to prime the well of his creative juices.

Visitors to the gallery can also listen to recorded commentary of contemporary artists, via cell phone, as they share what inspires them to create. Images of their work are then viewable via touchscreen. The show runs through Jan. 3.

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