Sargent -- American
Gallery of Art,
Oil on canvas
123.2 cm (31 1/8
x 48 1/2 in.)
(Click on image to step
Located on the west
bay of Mont-Saint-Michel,
in the extreme northeast of Brittany, the Village of Cancale has been
to the sea for centuries -- well before the time of Christ -- and
is known for its stunning breakers, its rocks, its breathtaking vistas,
its beaches, and of course the living gold it breaths forth --
mouthwatering oysters. Its people, the Cancalaises, were known for
stoic courage and resilience against a coastline and a way of life that
could be as heartlessly unforgiving as it was ruggedly breathtaking,
and wildly beautiful.
days of arid Paris contain less delights than one Cancalaise hour.
visited there in 1877,
many of the men were away -- as they would often be through the
century -- sailing far into the ocean bound for the rich fisheries of
gambling big on a catch that might pay handsomely. Fathers, sons,
sometimes many of the eligible men in a household might be gone for as
long as six months from spring till fall.
In their absence,
and left to their
own resources, the women and children could not live on promises of a
catch alone. What they did have, however, were conditions along a
that were so unusual, that as far back as the Romans, the area had been
harvested for oysters.
Displayed with more
than a little
notice at the 1878 Paris Salon (see
Road to Madame X), "Oyster Gatherers of Cancale" by a young,
unknown twenty-two year old American, was from the very beginning more
than just a pretty sentimental picture; more than the artful handling
a cumulus-clouded sky on a beach with nameless natives; and more than
the skillful play of light in the reflective pools at their feet by a
young foreigner; to the French who had been there; to the ones that
the Cancalaises, this painting cut directly to an understanding beyond
his years and beyond an outsider's view, right to the very inner soul
a Cancalaiser's life.
In the summer of
1877, when the men
were absent (say for a few -- see background right) the women would
down from the village, having passed the village's lighthouse at
point Cale. We are seeing a number of generations -- a grandmother,
young mothers, and children on their way to the oyster beds, baskets in
hand and children in tow. They wear the traditional dress of the white
headscarf and wooden shoes. The center women, dressed in black, appears
to be in a nuns habit similar to what was worn by Jeanne Jugan who
"Les Petites Sœurs des Pauvres" (little sisters for the poor)
(Cancale 1792 Saint-Malo 1879)
impressionistic and with
the method of Carlous-Duran that painted figures with little to no
and outlining, the spontaneity of figures and freshness of his brush
the very calculated composition that Sargent presents. Back at his
in Paris, he worked relentlessly on this pulling a whole host of
together -- starting -- stopping -- pacing back and forth with that
energy -- frustrated -- a hand pulling on his beard -- a furrowed
brow -- muttering under his breath -- pitching the entire thing and
again until he could do it from his gut -- quick -- fresh strokes --
and unquestioning -- until . . . .
Until he had
exactly what he wanted.
"Oyster Gatherers of
Cancale" would forever be a seminal moment in the evolution in his art.
What he would learn here, he would use over and over to teach students
at the Royal Academy in later years. The matrix of complexity from
to handling of paint, to the power of light were all here! For
Sargent, "Oyster Gatherers" defined his style.
was left to chance. Nothing replaced hard work. Nothing excused
short of a total understanding and empathy for his subject. And nothing
-- NOTHING -- substitute practice -- and more practice
his brush was the completely-tuned extension of his mind.
Special thanks to
who's parents lived in Cancale, and a friend
of the JSS Gallery, and for her big help with this page on
John Singer Sargent,
An Exhibition -- Whitney
Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987