Atmosphere Abounds at ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’

Stepping into The National Portrait Gallery for their latest exhibition, ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends I felt as though I were traveling back in time, waltzing into a gloriously dramatic world of floor-length gowns, unspoilt landscapes, excess and elegance. My eyes widened at the lushness of it all – rich colours, stunning scenery, perfectly coiffed hair. And beyond granting me access to that bygone Edwardian era, the show gave me a keyhole through which to peep into the artist’s own life, through his portrayals of the legends who lived around him – Claude Monet, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ellen Terry…the list goes on. As the saying goes, “you are the company you keep.”

Portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889), Oil on Canvas

John Singer Sargent, an American artist born in Florence, is considered the best portraitist of his generation. In fact, a Sargent portrait is quite unmistakeable with his utter mastery of light and keen ability to show feeling and soul in his subjects. Looking at his portrait of actress Ellen Terry, you know you are gazing upon a commandress of the stage. Looking at his portrait of Dr. Pozzi, you can only imagine the quantity of lovers the dashing and confident man must’ve had hidden in another room.

Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), Oil on Canvas

And in his iconic ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose‘ (1885-6) the children’s sweetness and naiveté springs from the canvas like the dancing light from their Chinese lanterns. To put it simply, Sargent’s portraits have life.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6), Oil on Canvas

But what I did not realise is that Sargent was in fact a master of more than just human subjects. Seeing some of his paintings done whilst traveling through Italy, I almost felt like I was coming face-to-face with a collection of Monet’s or Renoir‘s. One painting of a Javanese dancer reminded me of one of Gaugin‘s Tahitian beauties. It was truly inspiring to see Sargent’s ability to paint in such varied styles so purely and eloquently. His brush clearly knew no bounds.

Sketching on the Giudecca, Venice (1904), Watercolour on Paper over Preliminary Pencil
Sketching on the Giudecca, Venice (1904), Watercolour on Paper over Preliminary Pencil
A Javanese Dancing Girl (1889), Oil on Canvas
A Javanese Dancing Girl (1889), Oil on Canvas

Personally, his drawings have always been my favourite, (I find the jawbones in his sketches especially delicious), so I was thrilled to see some of these on display as well.

William Butler Yeats (1908), Charcoal on Paper

Most of Sargent’s paintings of other artists are of the artist “in action” so that a portrait of an artist is in fact an image of this artist at work. This is beyond exciting because, for example, not only do we get to see Monet, but we actually get to see him painting, en plein air, brush in hand! To me, this is a sure sign that Sargent truly cared about capturing who his subjects were as people, not just what they looked like. There is of course a voyeuristic element as well, as we, the viewer, spy on Monet at work.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885), Oil on Canvas

My mother arranges the books in her library by friendships of the authors, which I’ve always felt is a great way to get to know the writers. Similarly, this exhibition, by showcasing portraits of Sargent’s friends and peers, seems to allow us to get to know Sargent himself more personally. For an hour or two we feel as though we are living in his world, his world as he saw it. And if that isn’t a wondrous thing to do with an afternoon, I don’t know what is.

– India Irving

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends‘ is on view at the National Portrait Gallery until 25 May, 2015; St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE; Open Daily 10AM-6PM (Thursdays & Fridays 9PM); Admission: Full price £16, Concessions £14.50 (with donation)

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