WILLIAMSTOWN — This small, stingingly bright canvas always stops me at the Clark Art Institute, where it hangs amid great works by 19th-century painters, most of them French. It evokes a world far from the Clark’s undulant Berkshires campus; far, too, for that matter, from the forests of Fontainebleau depicted in several canvases nearby.
Instead, the stark light and the satisfying spiritual click of standing on your own shadow reminds me of my own childhood in Australia, much of it spent on all-but vacant beaches like this one. Only the subtle suggestion of distant haze, and the slightly ashen grubbiness of the sand betray that the sea is the Mediterranean and the beach Neapolitan.
The artist is John Singer Sargent. What does he show us? Two standing boys, fair-skinned, blond-haired, rosy cheeked. One faces the sea with two bladders attached to his back. Slick with water, these flotation devices glisten in the sun; they seem, in the image’s unfussy, un-philosophical atmosphere, as anomalous as angel’s wings.
Two other boys, older but still apparently pre-pubescent, have olive skin and dark hair. They’re surely local. A sharp-sailed yacht sits on the horizon. A swimmer’s head bobs in the middle distance.
The painting was probably Sargent’s first commission, and it was only the third of his works to be displayed in the United States. In Volume IV of Sargent’s “Complete Paintings,” authors Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray list several alternative titles, including “Innocence Abroad” and “Innocents Abroad” — both allusions to Mark Twain’s popular 1869 account of his travels, “The Innocents Abroad.”
There’s no question here about who are the innocents. It’s not just that the two blond boys are younger; they look hesitant, out of place, stuck. The Neapolitan boys, by contrast, take their pleasure easily. Stretched out, prone in front, supine behind, they look as indolent and unperturbed as adolescent lions on the savanna.
Even at the precocious age of 22, what a fine painter Sargent was! His touch is so sure. His feeling for subtle gradations of color, from blue to turquoise, or from sand to skin color; his embrace of abrupt contrasts between deep shadow and sun-dazzle; and his ability to convey sea-foam, spray, and the reflections of both all in less than a square inch are marvelous to behold.
What a draftsman too: Nothing is fudged; everything is exact to the desired degree, right down to fingers, nostrils, and teeth. The foreshortened boy on his back is curiously reminiscent of Degas’s icily brilliant drawings of naked women similarly arrayed (made as studies for his deeply weird 1863-65 composition “Scene of War in the Middle Ages”). The cropped, off-kilter composition, too, nods toward later Degas.
Sargent was never as bold or experimental as Degas. Nor was he quite as great a draftsman. But his famously suave and virtuosic brushwork would likely have appeared approximate and vague without his tremendous skills in this department.
Many people like to speculate about Sargent’s sexuality, and good luck to them. But like Sally Mann’s photographs of her young children, this image of sun-kissed figures dares the modern viewer to deny that images of a child’s bare body need not have anything to do with adult sexuality, shame, or perversion. Instead, they can be, and are, lovely, limber, idle, inviolate.Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe