John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

National Portrait Gallery

Written by Anna Beketov

Gabriel Fauré and Mrs Patrick Campbell, 1898. Private Collection

Gabriel Fauré and Mrs Patrick Campbell, 1898. Private Collection

The vibrant retrospective of the works of John Singer Sargent, Portraits of Artists and Friends, offers a well-dressed feast for the eyes. Showcasing the influences on the society painter of Impressionism and contemporary portrait painting, the exhibition provides a window into Sargent’s vitality. It reveals the artist as a master of culture, a key figure among the gliteratti of music, theatre, literature and art in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.  Sargent may have been criticised for his limited imagination, but the intimacy of his portraits and the originality of his settings, leaves little doubt as to his talent and erudition.  

 

The exhibition offers a suitably curated geographic tour of Sargent’s artistic life, tracking his progress from his early years in Paris, through America, London and rural parts of Europe. There is much variation in the style and character of the portraits but perhaps most notable are those ‘en plein air’, a style of which Sargent was an early adopter. Away from the domestic interiors of their country manors and lavish town houses, his patrons appear in the public sphere in a fashion typical of the modern manner.

 

If Sargent embraces this Impressionist ideal, the exhibition additionally exposes hints of Cubism which bely his reputation for conservative painting techniques. A fine example is Rehearsal of Pas de Loup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver (click here to see the artwork). In this wondrously abstract piece, brush strokes appear at first no more than scattered white lines, but on closer inspection trumpets, saxophones and batons emerge from the chaos. The piece performs to the viewer, and Sargent’s role as an enthusiastic musician with close ties to the contemporary music scene becomes apparent. Musicians Fauré, Henschnel and Delafosse pose for him, the closeness of artist and his subjects visible in the way their gaze leaves the canvas. The figures regard the viewer with as much contemplation as we them.

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d’Orsay

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d’Orsay

Exhibition-goers can also delight in spotting depictions of Sargent’s fellow artists. Monet, for example, is depicted painting outdoors. The work shown on the easel celebrates the painter, but through it Sargent manifests his own unique style. The theatre too, holds its own. Many of Sargent’s images of stage stars are full-length portraits, yet manage to covey the same sense of intimacy as his head-shots. As if on stage, they act for the viewer. Stunning Carmencita, a renowned Spanish Gypsy Dancer, stands proudly. After agreeing to sit for Sargent it is reported that remaining still was not Carmencita’s forte, and her restless movement is evident in this magnificent painting. Her impressive yellow gown sparkles, the swift brush strokes giving the impression that her skirt, over 100 years later, is still twirling.

The splendid image of Ellen Terry as a late Victorian Lady Macbeth, among the best-known of Sargent’s stage paintings, looms over the exhibition, all flaming red hair and crown held aloft. The exhibition is worth the effort for this alone.

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

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

The last room is pure escapism, filled with glorious images of Europe in the early nineteen hundreds. Gleaming white Swiss mountains, intricate Italian fountains, sun-drenched picnics and lush fields, all backgrounds for idling figures. Artists paint lazily in the warm afternoon and aristocratic women recline nonchalantly. It’s hard to leave this room, with its heavenly settings, and head out into the 21st century crush of Trafalgar Square.

A perfect way to while away an afternoon, the exhibition offers the glam and the glitz of the Impressionists, an insight into the lives of well-known figures, and precious time out from stresses of today’s world.

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