Monday, 16 February 2015

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver
Oil on Canvas c. 1879-80
A rare depiction of contemporary city life

A major exhibition of one of the most celebrated portrait artists opened at the National Portrait Gallery on 12th February. I was thrilled to view this wonderful collection of portraits at a preview the previous day, a privilege, as it will be popular. I was pleased to enjoy the space to stand back and admire the collection without a crowd around.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born in Florence, to American parents, who loved to travel. An unusual upbringing for Singer Sargent and his sister, a never-ending Grand Tour, their school room the galleries of Europe, tutors the intellectuals of the culture rich salons. Sargent’s mother was keen on drawing and passed on her skills to her son. So it is no surprise that John Singer Sargent wanted to go to Paris to learn to draw and paint. Family friends encouraged him and this overcame his parent’s initial reluctance, his father had hoped for a career in the navy.

Sargent studied under Carolus-Duran, his atelier had some affinities with the Impressionists but his true hero was Velazquez.  You can see from the portraits exhibited that Sargent absorbed from his master some of those ideas; for example, figures emerging from darkness into light, and the way Velazquez built up the personality of the sitter and conveyed mood to such startling effect. This works wonderfully well with the informal and intimate way he has painted or sketched his friends and fellow artists. The exhibition also reiterates Sargent’s continued involvement and enjoyment with the cultural ethos of the period.

Carolus-Duran (1879) Paris Salon
With Kind Permission of the National Portrait Gallery
The exhibition is arranged by the places travelled from Paris, to the USA, Europe and London and back again between 1874 until 1914, with portraits, paintings and sketches of fellow artists, writers, poets, many becoming life-long friendships, with Monet, Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ellen Terry.

William Butler Yeats 1908
Charcoal on Paper

Harley Granville Barker 1900
Charcoal on Paper

A most beautiful painting and perhaps one of that was most influential in launching his career, is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6). The colour alone makes me sigh with pleasure. The luminosity of it, the lanterns, the distraction of the young girls, and that sense of twilight, you can almost smell the scent of the lilies and carnations floating over the whole scene. The idea for the painting was taken from a real life encounter whilst staying in the Cotswolds, and Sargent is likely to have been influenced by Monet’s sur le motif,  painting out of doors and recording the conditions of light at a particular time of day. It is so real and vivid to me, that I worry about the Lily pollen getting on those beautiful white smocks, it makes indelible stains!

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6)
Oil on Canvas
Not far from this painting is an oil of Claude Monet at work Claude Monet, Painting, by The Edge of the Wood (1885). Sargent was friends with Monet and this delightful painting was created in his company, doing exactly what Monet advocated, painting en plein air. Notice the application of the paint, swift and accurate in capturing the mood and essence of the day. Sargent often gave his sketches to his fellow artists as gifts, this one he kept for himself, as a special memento of his friendship with Monet, not surprised, it is delightful and most have held fond memories.

Claude Monet, Painting, by the Edge of the Wood (1885)
Oil on Canvas
As the title of the exhibition implies the works are of fellow artists and friends, some but only a few are commissions, that is why you will not find the full length portrait of Madame Gautreau exhibited as Madame X.  It caused such a ‘scandale ‘ at the 1884 Salon as the critics accused Sargent of portraying her ‘as an amoral and brazen woman’ and raising questions about her respectability. One wonders if it was Sargent or her husband, banker Pierre Gautreau who played the ‘agent provocateur’, or perhaps Madame herself?

Sargent left for England shortly after the exhibition, heading for calmer waters and in no time at all, a wave of commissions. The reason I mention an non-exhibited work at all, is it brings me to oil on panel of Judith Gautier. Sargent had met Judith Gautier while in Brittany painting Madame X. One wonders if he did not become infatuated with Judith, as he created a series of portraits of her in oil, watercolour, pen and ink wash and pencil. All non-commissioned works and presented to her as gifts. The backstory to this meeting is well worth following up, but now is not the place. The lady was a Writer, Orientalist, Musicologist and much else besides and although Sargent was only a young man of 27 they had much in common, including Wagner, Judith as his last lover, and Sargent’s love of his music.
La Carmencity (1890)
Oil on Canvas
By kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

Sargent met some of the great celebrities of the time, drawn to their exotic looks, strong characters in life and on stage, their beauty and talented performances. This is well portrayed in La Carmencita (1890), a flamenco dancer, who looks ready spring into action at any moment..  Sargent captures her restless and exotic spirit.

We move on to the calm and elegant Ada Rehan, not in costume, but in dazzling shimmering satin; the Irish actress famous, for her role as Katherine, in Taming of the Shrew. A contrast to the costumed painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth across the room, a dazzling outfit and portrait befitting such a renowned actress. Shakespearian purists will realise that the crown is never placed on Lady Macbeth’s head in the text or performance, Sargent uses artistic licence to create a dramatic motif to express Ellen Terry’s great talent in performing this exacting role.

Ada Rehan (1894)
Oil on Canvas

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Oil on Canvas
At the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889 Sargent was fascinated by the re-creation of a Javanese Village where a performance of a symbolic dance was enacted. A series of studies of the dancers came from this and he produced three life-size, full-length paintings. A Javanese Dancing Girl is a move away from the wealthy or aristocratic ladies and gents he usually painted. Can you see the third hand? Capturing the rhythmic flick of the wrist perhaps.

A Javanese Dancing Girl (1889)
Oil on Canvas
I have gone on long enough, the exhibition is now open and on until 25 May 2015. For those readers of mine in the US, the exhibition will go on tour to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 30th June – 4th October 2015.

The exhibition is curated by Richard Ormond CBE (John Singer Sargent was his great-uncle), and he is also the co-author of the catalogue raisonne Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends (price £40). 

There are several books on Sargent in the lovely bookshop and if you cannot stretch to the big book, I found a small one, The Age of Elegance Paintings of John Singer Sargent (£5.95). It features some of the paintings in the exhibition plus a neat little biography at the end.

At the preview talk given by Richard Ormond I had the pleasure of standing next to A N Wilson, you can hear his views on the exhibition on Front Row.

For those of you who cannot resist a peek at Madame Gautreau as Madame X, please see links below.

Group with Parasols (c1904-5)
With kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

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