Renowned for his portraits of the great and the good of late-Victorian society and dismissed by critics as a painter of “crowd-pleasers” after his death, a more personal side of the artist John Singer Sargent is revealed in a major exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Organized in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition brings together, for the first time, a collection of the artist’s intimate and informal portraits of his impressive circle of friends, including writers Robert Louis Stevenson, W.B. Yeats and Henry James, artists Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin, and the actress Ellen Terry. These paintings reveal Sargent not only as a master of his craft but also as an important figure in the literary, artistic and musical circles of London, Europe and New York. And not only did he paint portraits of writers and musicians, he was also active in promoting their careers, including the French composer Gabriel Fauré, whose portrait hangs in the penultimate room of the exhibition.
Sargent’s paintings of his friends and contemporaries were rarely commissioned and allowed him to create more experimental and personal works than his formal portraits. His sitters are depicted in informal poses — lounging, picnicking, painting, singing, playing the piano — and the resulting pictures, with their sensitive use of lighting, palette and brushwork, are strikingly original, psychological and enigmatic. His sitters do not always meet our eye — in his own self-portrait of 1886 his expression is guarded — and in his painting of the two French children, “Portraits de MEP … et de Mlle LP,” his subjects look sulky yet dangerous. This is no cozy picture of children. The detailing on the girl’s dress is typical of Sargent: his ability to paint silks, satins, velvet and fur is revealed in these paintings, for which he has, rightly, been compared to Anthony Van Dyck, another great portraitist from an earlier time. Delicate flecks of lead white and yellow glint from the bracelet on a wrist or silverware on a table in the delightful interior scene “A Dinner Table at Night.” The whole scene is suffused with tenderness and warmth from the crimson lampshades and walls. In the portrait of Vernon Lee of 1881 (#14), the nom de plume of feminist and woman of letters Violet Paget, spare streaks of white create the light on her spectacles. In another painting (“In the Garden, Corfu,” 1909), a garden urn is sketched in with confidence and painterly brio, revealing an artist completely at home with his materials and subject matter. The triangular sweep of the main figure’s skirt dominates the composition and gives Sargent the perfect opportunity for the exploration of light and shade on the rich folds of the satin skirt. Meanwhile, the fashionable gynecologist Dr Pozzi is depicted full length in a luxurious, red tasseled robe, his handsome face turned into the light in a pose redolent of 17th-century swagger portraits.
Born in Europe to American parents, Sargent was familiar with Impressionism (there are two pictures of his friend Claude Monet in the exhibition) and lived long enough to be a contemporary of the avant-garde painters of the early 20th century, such as Picasso and Duchamp. But he remained true to what he did best, and this engaging exhibition depicts the affectionate and empathetic side of Sargent, debunking the traditional view of him and his paintings, and allowing the viewer a unique glimpse into another facet of his life and work — painter, intellectual, musical connoisseur and polymath.
The exhibition brings together more than 70 pictures, including remarkable loans, some rarely exhibited, from galleries and private collections in Europe and the United States, and it follows Sargent’s time in Paris, London, Boston and New York as well as his travels in Italy and the English countryside.