Review: John Singer Sargent Exhibit – National Portrait Gallery – London

28 Mar

by Rhea H. Boyden

019. Portraits de M.E.P. … et de Mlle L.P. (Portraits of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron)

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881

© Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

A month ago I attended the fabulous exhibition: ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A friend of mine had recommended I go while in London and I had no idea what was to await me there. I had learned a little about Sargent in my art history class at secondary school in Ireland, but I had not expected such an incredibly breathtaking and awe-inspiring exhibit comprising over 70 portraits by Sargent brought together for the first time from galleries and private collections around the world.

John Singer Sargent, a distinguished painter and muralist, was born in Florence in 1856 to American expatriate parents, the physician Fitzwilliam Sargent and Mary Newbold Singer. He had little formal schooling in his childhood, as his parents were constantly moving around Europe. His mother (who reminds me of my own restless American expatriate mother) believed that the artistic and architectural wonders of Europe were enough of an education for him and his younger sister Emily. Sargent was encouraged by his parents to draw and paint, and in the spring of 1874 the family moved to Paris to find an art instructor for the then 18 year old Sargent.

129. Dr. Pozzi at Home

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881

© The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

The chosen instructor was the flamboyant Carolus-Duran who immediately recognised Sargent’s immense talent and took him under his wing. Carolus-Duran had many young American artists in his studio in Paris, and it was here that Sargent made his first connections to the North American art world. The most striking thing about Sargent was how incredibly cosmopolitan he was, moving easily in his lifetime between the art scenes of London, Paris, Florence, Boston and New York. Not only was he a hugely talented painter, he was also fluent in English, French, German and Italian making it very easy for him to speak to all his portrait clients in their native languages.

The collection of paintings at the National Portrait Gallery are not portrait commissions, however, but portraits of his many friends in the world of art, music, literature and theatre. These paintings are not formal works created for clients, but daring and sensual portraits painted mainly as gifts for the sitters. It is a collection of highly-charged and unique portraits in which Sargent was free to experiment. And you can feel this energy when gazing at the portraits. I found myself standing in front of a full length portrait of Madame Edouard Pailleron who was the wife of the bohemian writer Edouard Pailleron, a very influential person and a sponsor of Sargent’s early career. Madame Pailleron is outdoors and is wearing a black dress with white lace. The contrast between the black dress and the green background is stunning. A man was standing next to me gazing at the portrait too and I could feel a triangle of tense energy between me, the man and the painting.We fell into conversation. ‘It is astounding how much he achieved in his life.’ I said to the man. ‘And to think that he confided to the author Henry James when sitting to paint his portrait that he felt he had lost confidence in painting portraits? How could this even be possible, that Sargent lacked confidence when you see this incredible exhibit?’ The man and I conversed briefly before going our separate ways in the museum. Next to the portrait of Madame Pailleron is a portrait of her children: Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron. Sargent may have had moments of self-doubt regarding his talent, but he certainly seemed to have had a lot of patience with his sitters. It is reported that it took 83 sittings to complete the portrait of the Pailleron children. Marie-Louise battled with him over hair and costume. It is said that Sargent had a great understanding of child psychology. His patience with the spoilt Marie-Louise is surely testament to this.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent, 1885-6 © Tate, London, 2015

Erica Hirshler,the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (which is home to Sargent’s marvelous murals) has said that Sargent was a sponge, soaking up a myriad of influences: Japanese design principals and the techniques especially of Velazquez and Degas. Carolus-Duran was also heavily influenced by the Spanish Baroque portraitist Velazquez, and this influence can be seen in the full length portrait of Dr. Pozzi at Home which hangs right next to the portrait of the Pailleron children. Sargent depicts Dr. Pozzi in an ecclesiastical mode, donned in red robes. Dr. Pozzi was not a cardinal or a priest, however, but the father of modern French gynaecology who advanced reproductive and sexual health for women.

After admiring Dr. Pozzi I ventured on to gaze at what is one of Sargent’s Impressionist masterpieces: ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.’ Sargent was close friends with Claude Monet and had learned a lot from him about capturing fleeting outdoor light. One portrait in the exhibit is of Monet sitting outside painting. The past few nights I have been listening to Mozart’s quartets while gazing at my incredible copy of the colourful ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,’ for it was the feminist and art historian Vernon Lee who said that the painting’s pleasures remined her of the slow movements of a Mozart quartet. I am sure Sargent would have approved of this musical interpretation, as he was a talented musician himself. He was a lover of Wagner and a fine pianist. One composer he greatly admired and supported was Gabriel Faure. When I gazed upon the portrait of him I shed a tear as his facial features reminded me of a musician I once loved who is sadly no longer in my life. And as if I needed a reminder of the pain that accompanies unrequited love, one of the next images my eyes rested on was a brilliant sketch of William Butler Yeats. Yeats proposed marriage to Irish revolutionary feminist Maud Gonne six times and she rejected him outright. They remained ‘friends’ but I have always been skeptical of the nature of that friendship. As I entered the exhibit I was still nursing the pain of rejection by the man who resembles the portrait of Gabriel Faure, but getting lost in the pleasures of art is certainly a good cure.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889

© Tate, London

My spirits were lifted as I absorbed the details of the full length portraits of both Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and the wild Spanish dancer La Carmencita. Sargent found both women’s theatrical presence electrifying and persuaded them both to sit for him. One of Sargent’s great talents was in capturing fabric in his painting. Barbara Dayer Gallati, author of the lovely book accompanying the exhibit ‘John Singer Sargent- Painting Friends’ said of the green silk and blue tinsel of Ellen Terry’s dress that it ‘provided Sargent with a field day for Impressionistic fireworks and scintillating brushwork.’

068. La Carmencita

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d’Orsay,

Paris (R.F. 746)

I then fell into conversation with an elderly American woman as I wandered through the room containing Sargent’s outdoor paintings featuring Wilfried and Jane de Glehn painting at a fountain, another entitled ‘Group with Parasols’ and the underrated but stunning ‘Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife’. Sargent also painted portraits of August Rodin, Robert Louis Stevenson and the actor Edwin Booth, whose younger brother John Wilkes Booth had murdered Abraham Lincoln. Gallati says in her book on the exhibit that Booth ‘wears a tragic, haunted look alongside a masterful self-confidence.’ I believe it is Sargent’s incredible talent for appealing to a variety of moods and emotions that make his work so astounding, and while looking at the portrait of Edwin Booth it struck me as to why I felt a whole range of emotions while wandering through the exhibit. The joy I felt while gazing at the uplifting and colourful palette of ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, was then starkly contrasted by the romantic yearning that hit me while looking at the portrait of Gabriel Faure. Indeed, the whole exhibit made me feel both connected to the world and completely lost and lonely in it at the same time. The fact that Sargent had so many friends and acquaintances in the world of art, music, literature and theatre on both sides of the Atlantic is cause for both admiration and envy. But then, how could one not be well-connected and accepted when one has the unbelievable talent that Sargent possessed in many fields. I left the exhibit feeling deeply inspired to achieve more, learn more and keep on reading and writing and reaching out to and connecting with other writers, musicians and artists, for only by doing this do I escape the pain of loneliness and unrequited love. Barbara Dayer Gallati’s exhibition book has been my close friend this past month and Sargent’s art has filled my soul with hope and inspiration.

‘Sargent-Portraits of Artists and Friends’ runs until May 25th 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In June 2015 it then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

All images courtesy of Sylvia Ross at the National Portrait Gallery Press Office.

One Response to “Review: John Singer Sargent Exhibit – National Portrait Gallery – London”

  1. Pamela Willis-Watters September 4, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    Brilliant piece! Thank you for sharing it.

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