Special Loan: John Singer Sargent’s "Fishing Boats at Whitby"

painting of fishing boats at sea

A Summer Interlude by a Young Artist

In the summer of 1884, John Singer Sargent was at a pivotal moment in his career. Leaving Paris and scandal behind him following the unfavorable reception of his portrait Madame X, he retreated to England to reevaluate his next steps. He spent the month of August in Sussex, at the homes of his patrons, the wealthy industrialist brothers Albert and Thomas Vickers. (Sargent would eventually paint thirteen members of the Vickers family.) The diary of Frances Vickers, Thomas’s wife, records an outing to the seaside village of Whitby, on August 29. While visiting the historic resort town with his hosts, Sargent painted Fishing Boats at Whitby, a small seascape that captures the atmosphere of a cloudy late summer’s day. This painting is on view at the Frick through August, a generous loan from the collection of Trustee Margot Bogert and her husband, Jerry.

Fishing Boats at Whitby affords the opportunity to look over the shoulder of a young artist in the process of developing his signature style. Sargent literally turned his back on some of the town’s more notable features, including a picturesque harbor and the ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey that would later inspire the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). He instead focused on the changing atmosphere of the scene before him. With a horizon that bisects the composition just below center, the quick study is a pared-down vision of shore, sea, and sky. Sargent represents the calm waters with a uniform application of a light blue-gray pigment. In the sky above, the artist layered thick brushstrokes of white over thin base layers of a gray hue — close to the color of the sea, but whiter. At the top of the composition, this tonal variation builds up into the thicker applications of white paint that suggest clouds. In the lower half of the painting, Sargent’s sparse, deftly applied brushstrokes create the effect of waves gently breaking on a sand beach. The delicate washes of the waves allow the brown sand to show through, suggesting the water’s transparency. The painting’s subtle variations are interrupted by angular black forms along the horizon, meant to represent cobles, flat-bottomed fishing boats commonly used along the northeastern coast of England.

Sargent painted Fishing Boats at Whitby only two months after he submitted Madame X to the Paris Salon. The infamous portrait of the New Orleans–born Virginie Gautreau, today one of the artist’s best-known works, represents his modern interpretation of the French academic tradition, developed in the Paris studio of his teacher Carolus-Duran. Sargent’s portrait of Thomas Vickers’s three daughters (Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield), also painted in 1884, shares some of the signature features of Madame X, notably the unusually tense poses of the young women and their placement against a shadowy, indeterminate background.

It is tempting to imagine Fishing Boats at Whitby as a moment of escape for the artist after the fraught reception of Madame X. Briefly liberated from the task of portraiture, Sargent devoted his attention to the shifting light of a cloudy day — the kind of impressionistic pursuit that he would explore with great success in future works, specifically Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Gallery, London), painted the following year. Perhaps the fact that he dedicated Whitby to his hostess Edith Vickers, with an inscription at the bottom right of the composition, is an expression of his enjoyment of the relaxed afternoon of painting en plein air.

Raised by an American family that moved between the fashionable cities of Europe, Sargent lived at the confluence of American, English, and Continental artistic tastes. By 1884, he had mastered his teacher’s modern interpretation of the French academic tradition, but also was drawn to Impressionism’s more radical approach and the charms of the British Aesthetic movement. One artist that Sargent could look to for inspiration in this varied cultural and aesthetic landscape was James McNeill Whistler, a fellow American some twenty years his senior. Admired for his original style, Whistler was a fixture in the artistic circles of Paris and London, as Sargent would one day be.

Fishing Boats at Whitby is displayed near a seascape by Whistler, Symphony in Gray and Green: The Ocean. Whistler painted The Ocean in 1866 in Chile, where he had traveled to support the country’s fight against Spain during the Chincha Islands War. While it is unlikely that Sargent ever saw the canvas, he would have been familiar with Whistler’s body of work, and Fishing Boats at Whitby reflects his engagement with the older painter’s approach. Thanks to Margot and Jerry Bogert, it is possible this summer to contemplate two American expatriate artists’ explorations of the light of foreign shores.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Fishing Boats at Whitby, 1884, oil on canvas, private collection.

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