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Oyster Gatherers of Cancale
22 in x 34

Painting as it hangs in the Corcoran

Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (Sketch) Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Women with Baskets 
(La Cancalaise)

Low Tide at Cancale Harbor
(la Houle)

Cancale Then

Lighthouse & Cale de la Fenêtre

Henry Herbert La Thangue

The boat-builder’s yard, Cancale, Britanny

Stanhope Alexander Forbes

A Street In Brittany

John G. E. Senechal-de-Herdreve

Return From the Oyster Bed After a Storm at Cancale 

Oyster Shells

Cancale Travail dans le Parc au Huitres
(Working in the Oyster Fields) 

Cancale la Houle


Madeleine Bruchet three years old with her cousin on the beach of Cancale 1951

Oyster Gatherers of Cancale
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC. 
Oil on canvas
 96.8 x 123.2 cm (31 1/8 x 48 1/2 in.) 

(Click on image to step closer)

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. 

Three days of arid Paris contain less delights than one Cancalaise hour.
-- Colette

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. 

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. 

Jeanne Jugan (Cancale 1792 Saint-Malo 1879)
jpg: ville-saint-malo

Although impressionistic and with the method of Carlous-Duran that painted figures with little to no drawing and outlining, the spontaneity of figures and freshness of his brush belies the very calculated composition that Sargent presents. Back at his studio in Paris, he worked relentlessly on this pulling a whole host of sketches together -- starting -- stopping -- pacing back and forth with that manic energy -- frustrated  -- a hand pulling on his beard -- a furrowed brow -- muttering under his breath -- pitching the entire thing and re-attacking again until he could do it from his gut -- quick -- fresh strokes -- sure and unquestioning -- until  . . . . 

Until he had exactly what he wanted. 

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.

Special thanks to Madeleine Bruchet, who's parents lived in Cancale, and a friend of the JSS Gallery, and for her big help with this page on Cancale.


John Singer Sargent, An Exhibition -- Whitney Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987


Cancale, Brittany, France

Larger Map

The Village of Cancale

Aerial view Cancale showing oyster beds

On the Jetty looking back towards the Lighthouse

Oyster Pits today

Oyster Stand today


Low Tide


Created 2000


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