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John Singer Sargent | The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale, 1878

In 1877 the twenty-one year old Sargent spent the summer in Cancale on the coast of Brittany sketching fisherfolk.
He sent his first completed painting, "Fishing for Oysters at Cancale", a finished sketch, to New York for display at the newly-formed, avant garde Society of American Artists from March 6 to April 5, 1878.
Sargent submitted the second painting, "Oyster Gatherers of Cancale" (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), a larger, more finished version of the same subject, to the 1878 Paris Salon, where it was awarded an Honorable Mention.

Critics praised "Fishing for Oysters at Cancale", the first Sargent painting to be exhibited in America, for its silvery hue and almost palpable marine atmosphere.
Samuel Colman, a landscape painter twenty-fours years Sargent's senior, bought it for $200 as a standard to emulate.

Sargent's choice of subject was not revolutionary - a similar scene of oyster harvesters had previously won a medal at the Salon.
However, his ability to paint the reflections in the tidal pools and the light sparkling on the figures and clouds dazzled viewers, clearly demonstrating that his talents extended beyond portraiture. | Source: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Singer Sargent | Self Portrait, 1906

Located on the west bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, in the extreme northeast of Brittany, the Village of Cancale has been tied 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 - its mouthwatering oysters.
Its people, the Cancalaises, were known for their stoic courage and resilience against a coastline and a way of life that could be as heartlessly unforgiving as it was ruggedly breathtaking, ever-changing, and wildly beautiful.

For Sargent, "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 composition, to handling of paint, to the power of light were all here!

For Sargent, "Oyster Gatherers" defined his style.
Nothing was left to chance. Nothing replaced hard work.
Nothing excused anything short of a total understanding and empathy for his subject.
And nothing - nothing - substitute practice - and more practice until his brush was the completely-tuned extension of his mind.

When Sargent visited there in 1877, many of the men were away - as they would often be through the nineteenth century - sailing far into the ocean bound for the rich fisheries of Newfoundland, gambling big on a catch that might pay handsomely.
Fathers, sons, brothers, 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 Newfoundland catch alone.
What they did have, however, were conditions along a coastline that were so unusual, that as far back as the Romans, the area had been harvested for oysters.

John Singer Sargent | Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884

Displayed with more than a little notice at the 1878 Paris Salon (see Road to Madame X), "Oyster Gatherers of Cancale" by a young, relatively unknown twenty-two year old American, was from the very beginning more than just a pretty sentimental picture; more than the artful handling of a cumulus-clouded sky on a beach with nameless natives; and more than just the skillful play of light in the reflective pools at their feet by a clever young foreigner; to the French who had been there; to the ones that understood the Cancalaises, this painting cut directly to an understanding beyond his years and beyond an outsider's view, right to the very inner soul of a Cancalaiser's life.

In the summer of 1877, when the men were absent (say for a few -- see background right) the women would come down from the village, having passed the village's lighthouse at point Cale.
We are seeing a number of generations - a grandmother, some 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 founded "Les Petites Sœurs des Pauvres" (little sisters for the poor) in Saint-Malo. | Source: © John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery