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.


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.

Related links


1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:


The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.


The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.


Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.


Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

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