En route pour la pêche depicts a scene in the quiet fishing village of Cancale, on the north coast of Brittany, France. Against the broad beach at low tide, the town's quay and lighthouse, and cloud-filled blue skies, a group of women and children set out to gather fish and shellfish from shallow pools for their evening dinner. The figures, arranged along the light-dappled shore like figures on a classical frieze, are followed by several more people descending the slipway. John Singer Sargent's impressive composition and deft brushwork endow the popular, but often overly sentimentalized, 19th-century subject of everyday peasant life with an unprecedented freshness.
While this painting gives an impression of spontaneity and facile execution, Sargent devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to preparing it for the 1878 Paris Salon, a highly regulated annual exhibition. The young artist understood the conservative nature of the Salon and therefore executed the canvas as formally and tightly as possible given his training. Even before the Salon closed, the painting had found a patron, marking the second sale of Sargent's career.
Born to American parents in Florence, Italy, Sargent studied in Paris in the 1870s at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and with the fashionable French painter Carolus-Duran. During these formative years before his rapid rise to fame as a portraitist, Sargent loved to sketch the sea and coastal life while traveling with his family. The artist began to develop En route pour la pêche, along with a related work in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at age 21. These were his first genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) and, along with their many preparatory works, constituted his first large body of work devoted to one locale.