John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery


John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends

A trip was organised by my local art society to view a completely different exhibition, however, it coincided with John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. There were several exhibitions on in London that I wanted to see at the same time, however, I only managed two because of both time and viewing energy limitations.

This was a beautiful exhibition – not particularly thought-provoking, political or shocking but most definitely beautiful – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! As my friend and I are also students at a local portrait class, this was absolutely relevant and instructional.  All exhibits were wonderfully painted, with skilful use of colour and light – most were solid representations of the sitter yet had a delicacy of flesh and fabric that seemed almost contradictory in one painting. I was absolutely awestruck by the personality oozing out of every portrait. A lesson I had learnt from the Drawing 1 course when attempting a self-portrait, whereby my friends and family could recognise my drawing as me, but not the persona portrayed – a successful portrait is not just getting the eyes, nose and mouth in the right place, (although obviously a good start) but seeing into the life and soul of the sitter as the artist feels they are. This, I think, is Sargent’s “talent”/skill.  It is said that he became frustrated and resentful of formal, commissioned portraiture and changed to landscapes and more narrative work that included figures yes, but not specific portraits.  These paintings and drawings exhibited here were of like-minded artists and close friends, and it is obvious that he held these people in high regard. I, myself, find I can achieve more of a likeness if I feel connected or actually like the sitter before me – although I have a long and bumpy road ahead of me before I can achieve a fragment of the skill I saw here.

My favourites? Well I think they change by the minute, however the paintings that caught my attention most in real life, rather than the reproductions in the book, were of:

  • Vernon Lee 1881 (Violet Paget), this was not a flamboyant or overly colourful portrait of his childhood friend but it was kindly, soft and gentle – he showed the private personality of an intellectual, strong-minded woman.  The rendering of the glasses with minimal brush strokes was a lesson in itself.
  • Madame Allouard-Jouan 1882, a stunningly beautiful (that word again) portrait that concentrated on the face. A simple tonal background, black high-necked dress and bonnet with black curls around the face draw the eyes to delicate, yet strong features. The eyes are simply painted, almost hinted at, yet still enigmatic.
  • Fete familiale c1885, this has a very different feel to many of the other paintings in the exhibition. It shows a mother and father at their son’s birthday tea-table. I found it interesting that the father’s face (The French artist Albert Besnard (1849-1934), was barely represented, he was placed at the back of the scene, almost in the shadows, and quite anonymous, whereas his wife and child were sat at the table and had the lamp light reflecting in their faces with the glow of the occasion around them. This made me feel the influence of the etiquette of the day, where I imagine the father to be absent from most family frivolities and was mainly a figure of discipline and bread-winning.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson 1885, there were two paintings of RLS, one with his wife and one solo. They were both painted at his Bournemouth home which, being fairly local to where I have previously lived, also attracted me.  I was particularly drawn to the solitary portrait of Stevenson where he lounged in a chair with his feet deep in a long piled carpet or rug. The pose, Stevenson’s droopy moustache, his neutral and nondescript clothes, the shag pile rug and the loose painterly style, made it look very modern – more 1970s than 1880s. It did remind me of David Hockney’s portrait of Ossy Clark cropped of Percy and wife!
  • Henry James 1913, this does look fairly formal in style of pose. However, they were close friends and James supported the artist’s work consistently. In the “flesh”, this portrait was very attention grabbing – the author is shown as formidable and imposing, again the focus is on the face and the viewer feels appraised rather than the other way around. The brushwork on the waistcoat and watch chain gives these substance and form, I was, however, particularly taken with the treatment of the hand – very convincing and solid.
  • Alberto Falchetti 1905, Italian painter. In reproduction, this painting comes over as a little disappointing, purely because having seen the actual work, the difference is quite astounding.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from that smouldering gaze – the personality, maybe arrogance and intensity were hypnotic – had this man been a modern-day actor, he would definitely been cast as Captain Poldark!

I would have loved to have bought the accompanying catalogue, however, funds would not allow – I did treat myself to a smaller book John Singer Sargent – Painting Friends, ISBN 978-185514-550-4, published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications Ltd.  This, although not including all the images exhibited, does have a good many, is easy to read and will be reviewed under Books in my blog.

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