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Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery

March 7, 2015

ArtsPainting | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford


Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887, Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohi
Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887, Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohi

 

John Singer Sargent was well educated, travelled and connected. He spent his career meandering between the English Countryside, London, Paris, Boston, New York and Italy, where he would socialise with the most creative bohemians of his generation. He painted portraits of his acquaintances not for commission, but for the love of his craft – allowing him to develop his signature style and portray his sitters with his now famous deeply personal characteristics. His portraits are famous for capturing the essence of the moment and offer a glimpse into the psyche of those portrayed.

 

Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent, 1901, Image © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent, 1901, Image © National Portrait Gallery, London

 

This exhibition, curated by Richard Ormond CBE, co-author of the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné, brings together many previously unseen works with some of the artist’s most famous pictures from galleries across the world to explore his deep appreciation of the cultural ties between himself and his friends. The results are informal yet charged and original.

 

The paintings lead like a roll call of the most pre-eminent cultural figures at the turn of the twentieth century: Sargent’s master the French painter Carolus-Duran, Robert Louis Stevenson, Auguste Rodin and Claude Monet to name a few. They illustrate the breadth of Sargent’s travels and friendship circles. After causing controversy at the 1884 Paris Salon with his sensual work Madame X, he found solace in escaping the Parisian criticism by travelling across Europe and the United States, painting the creatives whom fascinated him, perhaps wishing to surround himself with others who bared their craft for the world to judge.

 

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

 

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

One of the highlights of the show is a charming picture of the children of Jane and Wilfred de Glehn – artists with whom Sargent stayed in the rural art community of Broadway in Worcestershire in 1900 during his travels. The plein-air works are full of beauty and amazement at both nature and the human form. They celebrate youthful fancy through bright and warm colours and are particularly riveting in their wonder. These works see Sargent at his truest – with no question of commission, fee, audience, customer, or even adult comprehensions of art; he was completely free to explore his informal and emotional palette. The pictures tease at his capabilities outside the remit of the portrait. The children frolic in a garden amongst lanterns in an orange evenings sunny glow, full of vitality and beauty, it is clear the moment captivated Sargent.

 

The show is concise and methodical – it does what it states and as expected, is a series of rooms lined with portraits, the curation simple and straightforward. It is not ground breaking, nor is it comprehensive, but what it does do is provide a contextual display of Sargent’s true ability to capture the essence of the sitter through his work – something that he was truly a master of.

 

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Continues at the National Portrait Gallery until the 25th of May. For more information go to http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php.

 

Harry Seymour

 

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