In this new series, noted painter Joseph McGurl discusses plein air paintings by past masters that he finds instructive or inspiring. This week: John Singer Sargent’s “Atlantic Storm.”
For those prone to seasickness, I would not recommend more than a passing glance at this painting. As one who has spent many days on the ocean, I can feel the hull shudder as the propeller bites into the ocean in the trough of the wave. Reaching the crest, the ship would then surf down the face of the next wave. Keeping a straight course, as indicated by the snake-like wake, would be impossible. With the exaggerated perspective, strong value range, and ample use of diagonals, Sargent creates a dynamic composition and has put us on deck with him. This is one of those paintings that is defined by what the viewer feels rather than what he sees. In the “Sargent and the Sea” exhibition catalogue, the essayist believes it was unlikely Sargent painted this aboard ship, but I disagree. The vantage point is from a position sitting on deck tucked in behind a protective cabin. The brevity of the rendering, particularly in the lifeboats and figures, is what one would expect from a quickly executed plein air work. Additionally, the spontaneous directional lines in the foreground wave, indicating motion rather than form, lead me to believe it was painted aboard ship.