John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the ultimate Europeanised American. He was born in Florence of expatriate Americans and brought to a culturally rich but lonely and nomadic childhood, travelling extensively throughout Europe and reliant for companionship largely on his sister Emily. But lonely or not he developed a deep love and understanding of European culture and a strong desire to become an artist; a desire which his parents fostered and supported. In pursuit of this aim his family moved to Paris in 1874 and he was able to enrol in the atelier of the French artist known as Carolus-Duran. He prospered under the tutelage of Carolus-Duran, effortlessly outshining his fellow pupils, and the career of a important painter master was underway.
Sargent is best known today for the virtuoso portraits of society women for which he was regularly commissioned. To my mind they are stunning portraits which anticipate the current obsession with fashion and celebrity; Vogue in oils. But for much of the last hundred years they have been deeply unfashionable and deemed almost subversive by an artistic and critical establishment which has demanded that artists critique society and be agents of social change.
But society portraits are not the subject of this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Instead the exhibition focuses on the portraits he painted of his many friends and acquaintances from the worlds of art and literature. The portraits included in this exhibition include Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Henry James, WB Yeats and RL Stephenson. It is a broad visual catalogue of cultural leadership in Europe at the end of the C19. Unlike the society portraits, these paintings were rarely commissioned but were painted instead at Sargent’s behest to record the people he knew. As such, many of them are more intimate, informal and personal than his large commissioned works. Some indeed are no more than oil sketches.
The exhibition is largely in chronological order and opens with a bang. After a compelling portrait of Madam Ramon Subercaseaux which reminds us of the work for which he is perhaps best known there is a room full of early portraits which help us understand why Sargent was hailed as the new Van Dyck; large, swaggering portraits with a strong Renaissance feel. And no picture in the exhibition swaggers more than the portrait of Dr Pozzi.
After Sargent announces his presence and his genius for portraiture in this first room, the rest of the exhibition is more mixed. Perhaps this is because it is such a comprehensive exhibition with some 70 portraits in total. There was bound to be a mix of great, good and not so good. But there was something else going on. One thing that was going on was that he felt he had to leave Paris under a cloud after the critics and the public unjustly savaged his famous Portrait of Madame X (not in the exhibition), which is now seen as one of his very greatest paintings. This caused him to move to London, undoubtedly damaged his confidence and required some time to establish himself in the London market.
But there was more. I suspect that portrait painting was almost too easy for Sargent and that there was a risk of being slapdash if the picture was not very important. It is noticeable that the portraits of people who he was known to really like and admire, people perhaps whose respect was very important to him, were typically more carefully develop and more compelling than other pictures which really remained oil sketches. His pictures of Rodin, Monet and James, for example, were particularly strong.
Secondly, there is a sense that he became stylistically uncertain and confused. He clearly spent significant time with Monet and held him in the very highest regard. He took from Monet his belief in painting outside and away from the studio. He also, and how could he not perhaps, became increasingly influenced by the development of impressionism, and by landscape as a subject. At least 15 years before he died he had largely stopped taking commissions and his focus was increasingly on impressionistic painting of landscapes and people in landscapes. Long before that impressionism had seeped into his work. Indeed one if his most popular paintings, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is heavily under the influence impressionism. To my mind it is an appalling saccharine image, the triteness of which is fully reflected in the title.
The problem though is that he was never more than an ordinary impressionist and, indeed, that impressionism as a style with its focus on colour and tone, rather than content, is not well suited to portraiture. The final room of the exhibition is devoted to impressionist works and it is by some margin the weakest room in the show.
But these comments are not to rundown the artist or the exhibition. It is a compelling show of virtuoso portraiture and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.