Sarah Webb: A Contemporary Realist Abroad
By Gary A. Webb.
An Artistic Legacy Book
Nashville, birthplace of bluegrass and a Mecca for country music-lovers, is also a city with 18 colleges and universities, some of which are known for their strong views on art. These have included, we’re told, an opposition to the figurative that frustrated Nashville-born contemporary realist Sarah Webb.
Her husband Gary Webb decided the way forward was to leave. He sold his legal practice and the couple set off for Europe where they spent the 1980s and ‘90s. In pursuit of subject-matter, they pounded the streets and parks of London and Paris, hung out with bohemians and with royalty and, suitably attired, attended Royal Ascot annually for two decades.
Their travels lasted until just after the millennium when they headed home, but not before Sarah had established an ability to capture the colour, light and shade of the finer side of contemporary life that won her awards and representation in art collections in the United States and Europe.
Gary Webb tells us he was a reluctant biographer until his friends and associates made him see that he was perfectly placed to narrate Sarah’s development from a teenager aspiring only to be a fashion illustrator to an artist who had discovered “if I can see it, I can paint it”.
Rather than just illustrating, through discipline and hard work, she developed a bravura skill in reproducing in oils the lace, pearls, pleats and occasional creases that adorned the fashionable élites and the denim and leather of the rising generation. She also captured with wonder the confidence of the topless women sun-bathers on the French Riviera and painted Page 3 model Samantha Fox, fully clothed in 1980s sequinned glamour.
With the observation “women’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by the men around them”, Gary Webb cheerfully allows himself to be overshadowed by his wife and in the process creates a whole new genre that is part travelogue, part instruction manual and part beautifully illustrated romance. It does not fully satisfy our appetite for biographical detail, but it is clear Sarah Webb’s art is rooted in an extremely supportive marriage.
My favourite parts are the human insights that her husband is indeed well-placed to observe. We learn Sarah was decidedly a studio painter. Attempts to paint outside in Stratford-upon-Avon, where irritants included insects, hot weather and a stream of curious passers-by, convinced her she “absolutely hated” painting “en plein air”.
There were other times when she admitted defeat. In general, she loved depicting the joy of Parisian café terraces, but the great Montparnasse brasserie “La Coupole” eluded her. “Sometimes you just can’t make things happen,” wrote her wise husband.
Equally, with the exception of Venice, Sarah Webb found she did not connect artistically with Italy, perhaps because it is too locked in the past for a modern realist.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.