Wednesday, 1 April 2015

31 March, 2015: John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery ****

What a pity the trustees of New York Metropolitan Museum could not be persuaded to loan Portrait of Madame X for this exhibition of Sargent’s portraits of artists and friends. This masterpiece, first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884, was Sargent’s favourite work and was responsible for a complete change not only in the direction of his career but also, one might argue, his entire persona. In fact, so important is it in giving his other portraits context, one wonders why a decent copy could not have been obtained.

 When his request to paint Madame Pierre Gautreau (also an American ex-pat) was granted, Sargent was rapidly establishing himself in the artistic milieu of mid 1880’s Paris. Although he was American by birth Sargent had been raised in France as a cultured European and was fluent in French, Italian, and German. The extreme negative reaction to the portrait came as a shock to the assured and aspirational twenty-eight year old and knocked his confidence to the extent that he left France for England, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Today we think of a Sargent as a quintessentially English artist. Although it took him a while to re-establish himself on the London scene, it was his consummate skills as a portrait artist that cemented his reputation in England and subsequently America. Commissioned portraits where his bread and butter, but most of the portraits in this exhibition are ones he chose to paint and are all the more interesting for it. Claude Monet, Robert Louis Stevenson, W B Yeats, Gabriel Fauré, George Meredith, Henry James were all friends and give an idea of the literary and artistic circles in which Sargent moved and was accepted. 

Curator Richard Ormond has artfully combined these ‘celebrity’ portraits with less well known but equally fascinating subjects, as well as some oddities such as Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hive

Also included is one of Tate Britain’s greatest treasures Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. It hardly matters that this is a very loose interpretation of the word ‘portrait’. This is such a luminescent and magical work it could not be left out.

Some of the most interesting and arresting works in this exhibition are the charcoal drawings and watercolours. Not only do they illustrate the facility and fluency of Sargent’s drawing technique (his ability to draw with a brush was legendary), but they also hint at another Sargent,  a Sargent that might have been had he remained in France and exhibited with his life-long friend, Claude Monet, at the 1874 exhibition of Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs.

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