Sargent, not just another portraitist

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is currently holding an exhibition of Sargent’s portraits of artists and friends.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was just another portraitist to me, until I saw his jaw-dropping Bedouins (c. 1905–6, Brooklyn Museum) at the exhibition ‘John Singer Sargent Watercolors’ held at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and at the Brooklyn Museum. I was mesmerized by Sargent’s technique and composition and didn’t know such dramatic portraits could be achieved in watercolour.

Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence to an American family. His parents were based in Paris, but enjoyed extended stays in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Sargent studied art in Paris in the studio of Carolus-Duran, who taught his students to draw and paint simultaneously, working directly with colour and form without drawing studies. I thought this was noticeable in his later study of Claude Monet (1887), shown at the NPG, where Sargent’s paintbrush creates an almost sculptural depiction of Monet’s ear. Sargent was an exceptional student, and was chosen to exhibit at the Paris Salon in 1877, following the classical curriculum of a successful portraitist.

Although not shown at the NPG, Sargent is best known for his controversial portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) – part of the Met collection in New York). The painting, completed in 1884, temporarily derailed Sargent’s career.

Madame Pierre Gautreau, Louisiana-born as Virginie Amélie Avegno, was a socialite and wife of French banker Pierre Gautreau. Looking at the painting today, it is hard to see what was so scandalous. But the fact that Sargent painted her without commission and showed the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder caused outrage at the Salon of 1884. Sargent subsequently repainted the shoulder strap but kept the plunging neckline. He was immensely proud of the work and kept it for over thirty years before selling it to the Met in 1917 (source: Art Fund).

After uproar over Madame X, Sargent found refuge in Broadway, a village in the Cotswolds in the English county of Worcestershire. The village had been inspiration to writers and artists including Henry James and William Morris. While there Sargent painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate) and other works using techniques borrowed from Impressionism and Pre-Raphaelitism. He later moved to Boston and then New York where he found many customers and established himself as a world class portraitist, before coming back to Europe and London in his later years.

I was not as impressed by this exhibition as I was by the watercolors I saw last year, as I think his light effects are at their finest in the latter. Nevertheless, the NPG exhibition offers a very good insight into Sargent’s work, with a good selection of portraits of artists, writers, actors and musicians, and friends of Sargent, including some non-commissioned works. I think Sargent strives most in his “environmental” portraits, a term coined by his friend the French artist Albert Besnard, i.e. portraits making use of the sitters’ surroundings and expressing “their relationship with the world in which they live”. Look for the portrait of (a handsome) Dr Pozzi in room 1 of the NPG exhibition (on loan from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles), my museum crush. Sargent’s Portraits of Artists and Friends at the NPG runs until 25 May 2015.

Dr. Pozzi at Home 1881
Oil on canvas. 79 3/8 x 40 1/4 in. (201.6 x 102.2 cm). The Armand Hammer Collection, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

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