Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends @ National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the greatest portrait painter of his generation. This show brings together around 70 of his oil portraits, along with some late watercolours and a dozen or so striking charcoal drawings. Every room contains works of breath-taking brilliance.

Early days

This is Carolus-Duran, Sargent’s teacher in Paris. Sargent entered C-D’s atelier in 1874 and quickly emerged as the star pupil. This portrait is Sargent’s tribute and thanks to his teacher on ‘graduating’. C-D taught that every brushstroke must count. It is astonishingly vivid and alive, you can hear the rustle of his coat and expect him to start talking at any moment.

I noticed the ornate deployment of his hands in this early portrait and then was very aware of how the hands were painted in all the subsequent works.

Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

Artistic circles

Born in Florence of expatriate American parents, Sargent was at home in the most distinguished artistic circles of Europe. While he trained as a painter in Paris in the 1870s, he forged friendships with leading artists of the day, including Rodin and Monet, but he had a host of other contacts which he cultivated assiduously throughout his career, a cross-section of which are represented here:

Dr Prozzi

This is an early one of Dr Prozzi, a Parisian doctor, aesthete and rumoured lover of numerous women. The incredibly sumptuous red and scarlets are from Titian and other Old Masters, but the casualness of the clothes (dressing gown and slippers) exude the confident informality of the bohemian circles Sargent was at home in.

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881 © The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881
© The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

Sargent and modern music

Sargent was not only a devotée of Wagner’s music (the last word in daring avant-gardeism in the 1870s and 1880s) but it is typical of him that paints the woman Wagner had an affair with as the composer was completing Parzifal, Judith Gautier, and typical of his circle that she herself was the daughter of the famous French poet, Théophile Gautier.

He admired the music of Gabriel Fauré but was also an active supporter, organising chamber concerts of his work and spreading the word among his networks of the rich and influential, as well as painting two portraits of the composer.

Stories

Almost every commission here has a fascinating story, shedding light on a complex web of contacts, friendships, artistic relations and influences at the highest level. Lily Millet, wife of the American artist Frank Millet, was at the centre of the community of artists and writers at Broadway in the English Cotswolds, about which we hear a lot in the commentary.

Mrs Frank Millet by John Singer Sargent, probably 1885–6 © Private collection

Mrs Frank Millet by John Singer Sargent, probably 1885–6
© Private collection

This portrait epitomises several Sargent traits:

  • the face is vividly captured and does the hardest thing in art, capturing the precise physiognomy of a human being
  • the clothes, the fabrics, the silks and muslins are deliciously and richly suggested
  • it is unfinished – the body of the dress dissolves into raw brushtrokes and the background is suggested, unfinished, undetailed, so that the body appears from a hazy background and the face emerges in dramatic clarity from the vague dress, like the sudden re-emergence of the vivid melody after the development section of a symphonic movement

Sargent and Van Dyck

From the start he painted eye-popping portraits with a sureness of technique and suavity of subject matter which immediately got him comparisons with Van Dyck, one of the great portraitists of all time. This is not quite right, as Van Dyck’s paintings have a technical completeness and authority which matches the hauteur of his aristocratic and royal sitters, whereas Sargent was very influenced by the artistic currents of his day so that many of his works have much looser brushwork, are sometimes incomplete, giving an often bohemian sense of dash and brio.

Though he painted portraits of astonishing brilliance throughout his career, in this show possibly the first room is the best, with the stunning early portraits of:

Below is Portraits de MEP et de Mlle LP (1881). The most immediate impression is of the staring seriousness of the little girl – then I noticed the splayedness of the hands, as in many other Sargent portraits – and the detailing of the pale brown rug is stunning – but no reproduction can convey the amazing sumptuousness of the young girl’s white silk dress which shimmers out of the frame at you, as if you could reach out and touch it.

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881 © Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881
© Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

Five periods

These early works established his reputation at the French Salon, at the British Royal Academy, from which – despite a few knocks and rejections – he was never really removed. The show is in eight rooms divided into periods:

  • Paris 1874-1885
  • Broadway 1885-1889, not in New York, the village in the Cotswolds
  • Boston & New York 1888-1912
  • London 1889-1913
  • Europe 1899-1914

The influence of Impressionism

Throughout his life Sargent was friendly with the Impressionists, though both they and he were clear he wasn’t one of them. He was very aware of their technical innovations, namely painting en plein air, and many of the works here represent his repeated attempts to do the Impressionist thing with, I think, mixed results.

Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, c.1904–5 ©Private collection

Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, c.1904–5
©Private collection

They are brilliant in their way, but pale next to the rich fullness of his masterpieces:

Ellen Terry

And the super-famous full-length portrait of the late Victorian actress Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth. Again, no reproduction can convey the sense of scale and sumptuousness of the actual painting itself. At its greatest there is something magical about the shimmer of surface and depth of illusion which oil painting can create.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889 © Tate, London

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889
© Tate, London

Sargent looked disconcertingly like King George V, with a healthy ‘full set’ of beard and moustache. He did a number of self-portraits but they aren’t revealing. He was a watcher of others, not a revealer of himself.

Later oils and watercolours

In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent officially closed his studio and was able to retire from the hard work of commissioned portrait-painting which he found quite a strain. Throughout his life he had painted informal oils for himself, often of friends – as many of the works in the show attest – and in the last two decades of his life he was able to travel more, painting more relaxed scenes in picturesque locations – in both oil and watercolour – and especially of Venice, the Alps or at villas around Italy, often depicting his circle of artist friends.

A good example is The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy from 1907 ,which the NPG has used as the poster for the show. It epitomises the rougher, more ‘impressionist’, brush style he used for these personal works. The active stance of the woman – the artist Jane de Glehn – compared with the idle stance of her husband, Wilfrid, is indicative of the ‘liberated’ bohemian air of Sargent’s artistic circle.

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy by John Singer Sargent, 1907. Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57 © Art Institute of Chicago

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy by John Singer
Sargent, 1907. Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57 © Art
Institute of Chicago

Absent masterpieces

And there are quite a few of his greatest hits which aren’t here, making the show not quite definitive, but with Sargent having produced so much, and it being scattered very widely among private collections, how could it be?

But still – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many Sargents together in one place. Go and marvel.

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