On His Holidays, Norway

LL 3136


'On his holidays' was Lever's favourite painting. It is a portrait of Alexander McCulloch (1887 - 1951), and shows the young man, then a schoolboy at Winchester College, resting after salmon fishing in Norway. The summer holidays were a bad time for salmon fishing in Britain, and as a result Norway became more fashionable at the end of the 19th century. Sargent was a master of light effects, seen here in the varied tonal qualities of rocks and the large rapid brushstrokes with which the river is described. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1902 the painting was admired for the fascinating recording of the silvery daylight of a northern summer day, while reflections of the sunlight can be discerned in the iridescent stream. In this work the angle created Alexander's body serves the perspective of the painting and is parallel to the flow of the stream. The intensity of the painting's diagonals is softened by the curved body of the fish, the net by Alexander's legs and the swirl and surge of the stream around the rock. Sargent's close-up of the sitter and the landscape gives the painting an immediacy and directness, while allowing for the observation of the different textures in the rocks and water. In Sargent's portraits, for which he was most famous, sitters reach out to the spectator, actively inviting you to observe their beauty or to consider their personalities. The figure of Alexander, still with his school cap on, is slightly nostalgic and the dreaminess and youth of the sitter is juxtaposed with the dead salmon. Sargent originally made preliminary sketches of Alexander standing and holding the net along with others of the river and the salmon. These sketches are all now held in private collections. Alexander was the son of George McCulloch, who became wealthy after investing in Australian gold and silver mines and who built a remarkable art collection that he housed in a mansion in Queen's Gate, London. Sargent accompanied father and son on their fishing expedition to the Sundal Valley in Norway in 1901, and it is not clear whether the portrait of Alexander was commissioned. It is likely that Sargent may have been inspired to paint the portrait by the beautiful landscape, as the painting is a combination of portraiture and landscape, similar to paintings he completed in the Alps in 1904. In those portraits of his nieces and friends lying in meadows by rocky streams, as in this portrait of Alexander, Sargent carefully selected his viewpoint as if framing a photograph and manipulated the landscape to create careful juxtapositions of forms. The descriptive power of Sargent's rapid and vigorous brushstrokes, which so enlivened his society portraits of the 1880s and 1890s, is very evident here. In this painting the boy's casual but thoughtful pose within a precisely worked out natural setting very much reflects the artist's new and rather wider intentions as he began to move away from conventional portraiture.