Sargent, Portraits of Artists and Friends, at the National Portrait Gallery

Madame Ramon Subercaseaux (1880) Sargent is perhaps best known for his ravishing pictures of society women in pictures which flatter both their looks and their taste. Although the focus of this exhibition is elsewhere, on pictures of friends and acquaintances, the exhibition opens with this stunning portrait of the wife of a Chilean diplomat and artist. This picture was an important part of making his early reputation in Paris. It is perhaps Sargent at his best, a compelling portrait of late C19 beauty.
Madame Ramon Subercaseaux (1880)
Sargent is perhaps best known for his ravishing pictures of society women; pictures which flattered both their looks and their taste. Although the focus of this exhibition is elsewhere, on pictures of friends and acquaintances, the exhibition opens with this stunning portrait of the wife of a Chilean diplomat and artist. This picture was an important part of making his early reputation in Paris. It is perhaps Sargent at his best, a compelling portrait of late C19 beauty.

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.

Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879) This portrait of Sargent's teacher and early mentor was submitted to the Paris Salon in 1879, received an honourable mention and launched his career. Carolus-Duran was a radical teacher who encouraged his students to draw and paint directly to canvas in the manner of Velazquez. It is an approach which clearly suited Sargent well.
Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879)
This portrait of Sargent’s teacher and early mentor was submitted to the Paris Salon in 1879, received an honourable mention and launched his career. Carolus-Duran was a radical teacher who encouraged his students to draw and paint directly to canvas in the manner of Velazquez. It is an approach which clearly suited Sargent well.

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.

Dr Pozzi at Home (1881) You might think from the pose that Dr Pozzi saw himself as a latter day cardinal or Renaissance prince, striking a pose and clad from head to toe in red. In fact he was the father of modern French gynaecology making important advances in the safety and dignity of women. I think that we can be certain that he had confidence in his own abilities.
Dr Pozzi at Home (1881)
You might think from the pose that Dr Pozzi saw himself as a latter day cardinal or Renaissance prince, striking a pose and clad from head to toe in red. Perhaps he did. He was the father of modern French gynaecology making important advances in the safety and dignity of women. But whatever his role, I think that we can be certain that he had a regal confidence in his own abilities.
Portraits de M.E.P...... et de Mlle L.P. One of Sargent's earliest patrons was Edouard Pailleron and the exhibition includes portraits of him and his wife, and this portrait of his two children. The girl, Marie-Louise, later recorded that there were 83 sitting for this picture which perhaps explains why they seem strangely remote from the artist. It is a picture which seems to tell the future with Marie-Louise confronting the artist and completed in assured detail while her brother Edouard is a more sketchy figure edging away from the artist. As an adult, Marie-Louise became a distinguished figure in her own right; Edouard disappeared and even the date of his death seems unknown.
Portraits de M.E.P…… et de Mlle L.P.
One of Sargent’s earliest patrons was Edouard Pailleron and the exhibition includes portraits of him and his wife, and this portrait of his two children. The girl, Marie-Louise, later recorded that there were 83 sitting for this picture which might explain why the subjects seem strangely remote from the artist. It is a picture which is remarkably prescient about the future, with Marie-Louise confronting the artist and completed in assured detail while her brother Edouard is a more sketchy figure edging away from the artist. As an adult, Marie-Louise became a distinguished figure in her own right; Edouard, by contrast,  disappeared from sight and even the date of his death seems unknown.

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.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6) I found this painting to be a dreadful piece of twee sentimentality. Bring on the chocolate box lid!
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6)
I found this painting to be a dreadful piece of twee sentimentality. Bring on the chocolate box lid!

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.

Auguste Rodin (1884) This picture was painted relatively soon after they first met in the early 1880s. The respect in which the subject is held is obvious. He is painted as a dark almost biblical figure with brooding eyes which are just beginning to blur with age. Nothing else in the picture is allowed to distract from a face which edges from the deep.
Auguste Rodin (1884)
This picture was painted relatively soon after they first met in the early 1880s. The respect in which the subject is held is obvious. He is painted as a dark almost biblical figure, a prophet in his own time, with brooding eyes which are just beginning to blur with age. Nothing else in the picture is allowed to distract from a face which edges from the deep.
W. Graham Robertson (1894) This astonishing portrait of the 28 year old, W Graham Robertso, looking like a teenage dandy seems to be the most charged picture in the exhibition. Sargent never married and while, as I understand it, there is no record of his sexuality this picture seems to make it remarkably clear. It exudes sexual longing.
W. Graham Robertson (1894)
This astonishing portrait of the 28 year old, W Graham Robertso, looking like a teenage dandy seems to be the most charged picture in the exhibition. Sargent never married and while, as I understand it, there is no record of his sexuality this picture seems to make it remarkably clear. It exudes sexual longing.
WB Yeats (1908) There are just six charcoal drawings in the exhibition but they are all fine. This picture of WB Yeats is one of the best.
WB Yeats (1908)
There are just six charcoal drawings in the exhibition but they are all fine. This picture of WB Yeats is one of the best.
La Carmencita (1890) Sargent saw Carmencita in music hall in New York. He was very struck be the force of her presence and requested permission to paint her. The result is an enormous picture which fully captures her strength of personality. Her face is japanned, a white mask with dark lips and eyebrows. It makes Carmencita look proud, exotic and dangerous to know. It caused a sensation when exhibited with viewers seduced and repelled in equal measure.
La Carmencita (1890)
Sargent saw Carmencita in music hall in New York. He was very struck be the force of her presence and requested permission to paint her. The result is an enormous picture which fully captures her strength of personality. Her face is japanned, a white mask with dark lips and eyebrows. It makes Carmencita look proud, exotic and dangerous to know. It caused a sensation when exhibited with viewers seduced and repelled in equal measure.
In the Garden, Corfu (1909) This is one of the last pictures in the exhibition. Sargent has abandoned the bold and direct portraiture with which he launched his career and is content to restrict himself to impressionist sketches. It is a nice and pleasant picture but neither great nor distinctive. Whilst some great artists use the last part of their career to make bold final statements, Sargent retreated to sketching.
In the Garden, Corfu (1909)
This is one of the last pictures in the exhibition. Sargent has abandoned the bold and direct portraiture with which he launched his career and is content to restrict himself to impressionist sketches. It is a nice and pleasant picture but neither great nor distinctive. Whilst some great artists use the last part of their career to make bold final statements, Sargent retreated to sketching.
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