Sargent and the Sea, Royal Academy

    The artist's sea paintings show he had substance – but what if the waves weren’t the only thing attracting him to the beach?

    The reputation of John Singer Sargent, the oleaginous American dandy with the extra-quick hands, has gone through something of a rebuild recently. Nobody has ever doubted that Sargent could chuck paint around with marvellous skill. That was obvious to all. Even grumpy old Rodin called him “the Van Dyck of his times”. For most of the 20th century, however, Sargent’s skills as a portraitist were deemed to be meretricious. His speciality — the wafer-thin English countess leaning against an Adam fireplace — was a subject progressive aesthetics looked down on. There are various centuries in which being the Van Dyck of your times would have been considered an achievement, but the 20th was not one of them.

    Just lately, though, as the stern world-view of the holocaust century recedes into history, we have grown more forgiving. A few years ago, an ambitious retrospective at the Tate proved immensely popular with gallery-goers. Among critics, too, the opinion was enlarging that Sargent’s skills had been undervalued. Now the Royal Academy has steered us away from his portraiture altogether by mounting an intriguing survey of his sea paintings.

    Sargent and the Sea seeks to understand his career-long love of beaches and getaways as the fruitful by-product of his restless origins. He was born in Florence in 1856, to expatriate Americans who were happily bumming around Europe, floating from capital to capital, staying where they wanted, seeing what they wanted. Dad had the money; Mum had the snobbery and the art tastes. When their eldest son showed obvious signs of artistic talent, they sent him to Paris to study under the haughtiest painter at the salon, the appalling Carolus Duran, a man so full of himself, you wonder where his vital organs were squeezed in.

    Of all the painters to whom Sargent could have been shipped, Carolus was perhaps the most dangerous. Nearly modern, nearly brilliant, nearly insightful, he was much too fond of appearances — particularly his own — to risk a genuine visual upset. Pretty much all the accusations later levelled at Sargent could be levelled at his teacher.

    This display begins with a short documentary precis of Sargent’s own wanderings, topped off by one of the most pleasing pictures in the show. Painted circa 1875, while he was already in Carolus’s atelier, Seascape with Rocks is a view of the Brittany coast at a drab twilight. The sea is grey. The rocks are brown. The location is unspectacular. Nothing here gives the painter an easy route to an impressive conclusion, but Sargent fixes on the quietude and makes the scene magical by blurring the divide between sea and sky into a beautiful meeting of opalescent whites. These are delightful effects that are common in pearls and certain types of English countess. But rare in seascapes.

    Unfortunately, Sargent’s taste for the pearly becomes a shortcoming when directed at bigger and wilder waters. In 1876, when he was 20, his mother took him on his first trip to America. On the journey, he recorded the action at sea in a series of jaunty sketches. These were later worked up into two showy set pieces that are the exhibition’s next focus.

    Atlantic Storm was a conscious attempt to echo Turner, the king of the sea, whom Sargent much admired. Ninety per cent of the picture describes the sea in one of its satanic moods. A huge wall of water looms over a small ship that bobs about in the swell, like a tiny cork in a big Jacuzzi. Inspired by a real storm Sargent had sailed through on his return to Europe, the painting does some things well: a dramatic composition, an inventive angle of view. Where it goes awry is in the actual treatment of the waves, which is smudgy and approximate. The coloration, too, feels artificially bright, as if the Mediterranean were pretending to be the Atlantic.

    Sargent produced a sister painting of a sunset that also hangs here, also pays homage to Turner and also features a huge expanse of the Atlantic. This time, the coloration is pearly grey, which Sargent does beautifully, set off with a few exquisite glows of sunset orange. Unarguably pretty, Atlantic Sunset has martinis flowing through its arteries, rather than lava. Where a Turner sunset is related to a nuclear explosion and burns your eyes with its fiery reds and uncontrollable yellows, a Sargent sunset would look good on the back of an art deco hairbrush.

    Most of his subsequent involvement with the sea is actually an involvement with beaches and boats, both of which he enjoyed messing about on. Like Carolus, Sargent accepted enough of the impressionist rethink to quicken his paintwork, but never enough to be truly revolutionary. The result is a painterly breeziness that gives his scenes of Brittany an unfixed quality, as if the jelly hadn’t set. It’s particularly true of En route pour la pêche, the ambitious set piece he aimed at the Paris salon in 1878, for which the sketches are more pleasing than the final painting.

    Since he began to edge his way back into popularity, Sargent’s sexuality has been the focus of much furtive speculation. He never married or had a serious relationship, and was so charmingly at ease with countesses and dukes that many have assumed he was gay. A painting called Neapolitan Children Bathing, from 1879, makes me suspect something darker. Each of the show’s sections is centred on a main picture, around which have been clustered appropriate drawings and sketches. The sketches for Neapolitan Children are, frankly, disquieting. The naked boys sprawled on their backs in the sand, or gazing out to sea with their bottoms in the air, are surely being watched with an unhealthy degree of interest. Whatever it was that really drew Sargent to Naples and Marseilles and Tangier, it cannot be denied that the delicious blues of the Mediterranean suited his showy talents more readily than the complex greys of 
    the Atlantic.

    The show’s most tempting picture, A Boat in the Waters off Capri, painted in 1878, looks down on a rowing boat moored in the crystal-clear waters of a sandy bay. If not for the shadow cast on the sea bed by the boat, you would hardly know there was water there at all. Yes, there is something of the travel brochure about this perfect Mediterranean view, but these are early days to get the Thomas Cook mood exactly right.

    The final section features Sargent in Venice. I found it particularly disappointing. Again, it isn’t the sea that attracts him here, but the waterside. Where most painters who come to Venice admire the intoxicating light conditions, Sargent manages to make the Serenissima appear claustrophobic, cluttered and muddy. Shuffling about the canals in a gondola, more often than not he stares up at some famous Venetian vista through a crisscross of masts and riggings. As an angle of view, it has more in common with scenes of Golgotha than with the usual treatments of Venice. If we must venture some psychology here, I would describe these as the works of a dark, knotted, inhibited psyche.