16 March 2015

Sargent at the NPG

I missed the Sargent exhibition at the Tate in 1998 (in Washington and Boston the following year), which I regretted, having been impressed in 1979 by the London National Portrait Gallery’s John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age (which went on to Detroit). So I was looking forward to Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, again at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was not disappointed.

Sargent (1856-1925) certainly was the leading portrait painter of the Edwardian age (circa 1900-1910), much sought after to produce impressive portraits of the top “1%” at a time when the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest was as great as it is today. But Sargent also painted portraits of his friends, often men and women who were of distinction in the artistic world and who he could portray in a less mannered style of his own choosing. Ideally I would post all the pictures in this exhibition, the ones which follow are those I found particularly striking.

The NPG show is chronological, starting with the artist’s early years spent in Paris (1874-85), initially as a pupil of Carolus-Duran (1879, below left). Sargent’s first exhibit at the Royal Academy was Dr Pozzi at Home (1881, below right), the founder of modern French gynaecology, looking just as Central Casting would have offered for the part.

Sargent, although never married, obviously enjoyed female company and revealing depth of character in the women who sat for him. As soon as you see them, you want to know more about them, for example the Italian Renaissance intellectual, Vernon Lee (1881, below left) and the habituée of Parisian artistic and political circles, Madame Allouard-Jouan (c1882, below right):

Particularly impressive is the double portrait of the children of one of Sargent’s earliest patrons, Edouard Pailleron, Portraits de M.E.P. … et de Mlle E.P. (1881, below); the brushwork of the detail in Marie-Louise’s costume is fascinating.

The next section of the exhibition, Broadway (Worcestershire, England not New York), covers the years 1885-89 and various paintings Sargent made in southern England. There was a community of artists and writers at Broadway where one Tate Britain’s most popular works, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (below) was painted in 1885-86, the subjects being the daughters of Sargent’s artist friend, Frederick Barnard.

The following section is the largest and covers the years Sargent was dividing his time between Boston and New York (1888-1912) and London (1889-1913). There are only five pictures to cover the former, one of interest being Edwin Booth (1890, below left) - he was an actor, like his brother John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and distantly related to Cherie Booth, wife of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In the London selection, W. Graham Robertson (1894, below right) has elements of the society “swagger” portraits for which Sargent was celebrated.

Again, some strong female portraiture: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889, below left) and Mrs George Batten Singing (1897, below right):

The exhibition ends with Europe (1899-1914) with paintings Sargent made on painting holidays with friends, many in Italy. The poster above is of The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) with Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn. The same couple are in the watercolour, Sketching on the Giudecca, Venice (c1904, below top) while other friends are captured on holiday in the Alps in Group with Parasols (c 1904/5, below lower):

Within a few years the cataclysm of World War 1 would engulf Europe. Nothing could be further from the paintings at the end of this exhibition than the massive work recently on show at the Imperial War Museum which Sargent would undertake in 1918, Gassed. Within a few years of his death Sargent’s reputation was in decline, undermined by Roger Fry on the grounds of its having been overtaken by modernism in much the same way as his successor as the UK’s leading society portrait painter, William Orpen, was done for by John Rothenstein. Sargent and Orpen had much in common artistically, in particular a facility to produce portraiture that was pleasing to its subject while being more revealing of character than the sitter would realise. An ability that must have been very irksome to fellow artists who lacked it.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends ends on 25 May.


Christopher Snowdon (@cjsnowdon) tweeted this last week. The opening lines of AJP Taylor's English History (1914-1945) seem to sum up the world that people in the privileged position of Sargent and his friends lost at the outbreak of WW1:

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