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a resource about art and its making

New Ways to Paint: A Boating Party

By Maureen C. O'Brien
  • RISDM 78-086

John Singer Sargent
American, 1856–1925
A Boating Party, 1889
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf in memory of her husband, Houghton P. Metcalf 78.086

Sargent painted A Boating Party during a late summer vacation on England’s River Avon. During the extended holiday with his sister Violet and friends Paul and Alice Helleu, he experimented with Impressionist composition and technique.

Unlike Johnson and Cassatt, who first trained in America, Sargent was exposed to advanced French technique from the outset of his studies. The first Impressionist exhibition had just taken place when Sargent arrived in Paris at the age of 18 and enrolled in the studio of Carolus-Duran, a close friend of Edouard Manet.



RISDM 2007-68

Charles-Emile-Auguste Durand, called Carolus-Duran
1837-1917
Portrait of Edouard Manet, ca. 1877
Oil on canvas
25 x 17 7/8 in.
Purchased with the Frederick Lippitt Bequest 2007.68

Born in Florence, Italy, Sargent had spent his entire life abroad, physically immersed in the history of European art and architecture. His artistic development in France was astonishing: by the spring of 1877 he had his first work accepted at the Paris Salon.

By the early 1880s, Sargent was a rising star whose inventive compositions and fluid paint-handling pushed the boundaries of convention. When critics slammed his daring Portrait of Madame X (1883–1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art), the barbs were not unlike those sustained by Manet and the Impressionists, for whom Sargent had a keen appreciation. After Manet’s death, Sargent was asked to spearhead a fundraising effort among American painters to purchase the artist’s Olympia (1862, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) for the Louvre. His counterpart, Claude Monet, solicited French artists for support, and a friendship developed as a result of their successful venture. At least twice in the 1880s, Sargent visited Monet at Giverny, and even painted Monet out-of-doors.



RISDM 78-086 det_v_03

John Singer Sargent, A Boating Party (detail), 1889. Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf in memory of her husband, Houghton P. Metcalf

Both A Boating Party and a finished painting of Paul Helleu and his wife he made in the late summer of 1889 show Sargent’s interest in Monet’s dense, watery landscapes and his paintings of young women in rowboats and canoes on the River Epte. In particular, A Boating Party reveals some of the challenges he faced in developing an equivalent to Impressionist paint handling. His confidence is apparent in the placement of figures and watery reflections, in the asymmetric organization of the boats, and in his strong sense photographic cropping, but the murky stands of trees and the unfinished corner at upper right reveal his struggle to master the complexities of Monet’s brushstrokes.



RISDM 78-086 det_v_02

John Singer Sargent, A Boating Party (detail), 1889. Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf in memory of her husband, Houghton P. Metcalf

A Boating Party, which he never exhibited, is a stepping stone in an artistic education whose growth spurts often took place in summer. He progressed rapidly, and one need only turn to his later work in watercolor to discover the rich vocabulary of brush marks he devised in response to nature’s changing effects.



RISDM 78-086 det_v_01

John Singer Sargent, A Boating Party (detail), 1889. Gift of Mrs. Houghton P. Metcalf in memory of her husband, Houghton P. Metcalf

Maureen C. O’Brien
Curator of Painting and Sculpture