Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends
Rob Smith reviews the current John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. You can find out more about some of the people in John Singer Sargent’s portraits on Rob’s walk John Singer Sargent’s People
During the late Victorian and Edwardian era’s, a sign that you had finally made it in the world was to have your portrait painted by American artist John Singer Sargent. Working from his studios in Tite Street in London Sargent painted the pillars of the establishment, the rich, the beautiful, the famous. While he made the personality of every famous sitter stand out from the canvas, Sargent seems to have regarded these portrait paintings more as ways to fund his travelling. Who he really liked to paint were his friends. The National Portrait Gallery have pulled together his paintings of his friends and artists he admired into a beautiful exhibition, and the love John Singer Sargent had for his friends really shines through.
That we are able to call John Singer Sargent a London based artist is lucky indeed. Born to American parents and growing up and learning to paint in Italy, Sargent decided to set up as a portrait painter in Paris, but in 1884 his painting of Madame X (not in this exhibition) caused a sensational scandal. Not only has Sargent painted the beautiful Madame X in a tight figure revealing black dress, but golly gosh, he had added the provocative detail of the strap of her dress hanging down over her shoulder. This was all too much for the Paris salon. Sargent tried to redeem the situation by repainting the picture with the strap back up over her shoulder, but the damage was done. Paris was not prepared for the sight of a society woman displaying naked shoulders. Sargent fled Paris and contemplated giving up painting altogether.
Paris’s loss was London’s gain. After a brief spell painting in the Cotswolds, Sargent moved to London. After a number of successful paintings, it was his stunning portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw that made him the painter to go to, and soon there were no shortage of lucrative commissions. Sargent’s skill as a painter obviously was his main selling point but he was also skilful at flattery. He wrote long “love letters” to Lady Astor to persuade her that only he could do her beauty justice. Sargent also seems to have been a charming and affable man, which probably accounts for his impressive and extensive circle of friends.
Two of the stand out paintings in the exhibition are Sargent’s paintings of his friend, writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Here are examples of Sargent’s ingenuity. It would be easy to have painted a conventional portrait of Stevenson, but Sargent has him seated head turned thoughtfully towards us as if we have distracted him from a moment of contemplation. In the other portrait, Stevenson paces the room, the painting taken like a photographic snapshot, we are drawn into the domestic scene, the viewers eye drawn through a doorway, his wife off centre as if the two are in the room but not in conversation.
Sargent was mixing with other artists and art lovers and their styles occasionally rubbed off on him. You can certainly see this in his portrait of actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, which has a very pre Raphaelite look about it. Ellen Terry’s dress was designed by Alice Comyns Carr, who, along with her husband Joseph championed the pre Raphaelites in their art gallery, in the pages of the Pall Mall gazette and at their soirees that Sargent attended. Ellen Terry arrived at Tite Street in a horse drawn coach wearing the beautiful dress just at the time Oscar Wilde was passing. He declared that the street “can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities” after seeing her arrive. Sargent himself seems particularly struck by her magenta hair. Also in the exhibition is a beautiful painting of Sargent’s friend Monet painting in the open air. Almost in tribute to Monet, Sargent has adopted a more impressionistic style for this painting.
The highlight room in the exhibition collects together the work Sargent did in London and Boston between 1893 and 1913. The National Portrait Gallery have done a marvellous job in creating a beautiful intimate space to enjoy so many portraits in one room. Improvements in travel meant that working on both sides of the Atlantic became a possibility and Sargent had seasons painting in Boston and London. One painting that typified this was his portrait of actress Ada Rehan. Sargent was keen to paint her but Rehan’s busy schedule of Shakespearian roles in both London and New York meant that it was hard for her to sit with her. Eventually Sargent’s persuasiveness won her over and work started in his Boston studio. The painting went well apart from on of Ada’s rugs that provided the backdrop, they both agreed it was too overpowering, so the background had to be repainted. Sargent had no time to complete it there and then and the painting was shipped to London for completion – truly a trans Atlantic operation. It is nice to see a more mature woman as the subject of the painting – proving that Sargent was not just painting young debutantes. Ada Rahan was a sensational success in London, critics in the Times describing her performances as “dancing on the edge of a volcano” – she could capture grace and rage and switch instantly between them.
Possibly because of the fame of his society portraits, Sargent has perhaps been overlooked as a serious artist over the years. This exhibition, with its diversity of styles, will go some way to enhancing Sargent’s reputation, in a way 2010’s Sargent and the Sea exhibition at the RA expanded his knowledge. The National Portrait Gallery and curator Richard Ormond have done a fantastic job of creating a beautiful space to enjoy these fantastic paintings. The visitor really gets a sense of what a warm and generous person John Singer Sargent was, someone who loved his friends and was loved by them.
The exhibition runs until May 25th see here for tickets
You can hear the stories of some of the people John Singer Sargent painted on my walk John Singer Sargent’s people – see here for dates and details.