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Around the galleries

Making friends with John Singer Sargent

— March 2015

Associated media

Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881 © Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Sargent’s work has always been controversial. Now we have an opportunity to see for ourselves – Sue Ecclestone gives the ‘thumbs up’ to the National Gallery’s stunning display

‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’is a mundane title for a fascinating and most stunning exhibition of portraits by John Singer Sargent. Curator Richard Ormond (a descendent of Sargent) has collected together 70 works by the artist, produced in locations across Europe and America over a 34-year period. While Sargent was not always appreciated as a man of culture and innovation during his lifetime, this collection illustrates that the artist’s work was distinctive and original; it also reveals an artist that surrounded himself with other progressive and artistic people. This exhibition demonstrates Sargent’s range and ability to experiment while working within the accepted norms of formal portraiture and shows the viewer a variety of works that move from the intimate, to the haunting, to the idiosyncratic.

The exhibition starts with a stunning portrait of Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, the wife of the Chilean diplomat and artist Ramón Subercaseaux. The picture was painted in 1880 when the young couple were living in Paris and proved an important collaboration for Sargent, earning him a second-class medal in the Paris Salon of 1881 that secured him the privilege of entry into future Salons without submitting to the jury. The Subercaseaux were a progressive, sophisticated couple and Sargent, while representing his sitter using traditional portrait techniques, emphasizes MadameSubercaseaux’srefinement and aesthetic taste, portraying her as a woman of beauty and culture.

Indeed, Sargent’s portrayals of his sitters tend to be about identity rather than a need to capture a great likeness; they are more an effort to depict something about the character of the portrayed than to create a flattering facsimile. Moreover, because Sargent’s portraits of his friends were rarely commissioned, he was able to experiment with modes of visual representation that make these paintings brutally truthful, occasionally witty and sometimes startlingly intimate.

One delightful example of such intimacy is Sargent’s sketch of his childhood friend Violet Paget, a writer and feminist who published under the pseudonym ‘Vernon Lee’.  Vernon Lee, Sargent’s portrait of Paget, shows her bespectacled, with tousled hair, her mouth slightly apart revealing crooked teeth and in somewhat gender-ambiguous dress. Painted in three hours during a visit to London in 1881, Sargent’s impressionistic rendering captures an urgency and excitement that the two old friends must have felt at their brief meeting. 

While Vernon Lee is a soft and intimate work, Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron (1881) is, in stark contrast, a haunting but beautifully rich work. The brother and sister were the children of wealthy, influential members of the Paris salon. They pose seated on furniture covered by a Persian carpet. Marie-Louise, wearing a delicate white dress and wearing an exotic bangle on her left wrist, stares out from the painting in a defiant and sullen manner. Her brother in a black suit and white shirt has his back twisted away from the viewer, but his face is turned to glare from the canvas as if to challenge our gaze: the children look like furious and reluctant participants in a parading of wealth and culture. Sargent’s use of a deep red hue for the picture’s background adds to the tension created in a realist portrayal of the children’s resentment.

The full-length painting of Dr Pozzi at Home (1881) is displayed on the same wall as the Pailleron children and Sargent’s portrayal of the physician is as serene as the children’s is agitated. Dr Pozzi, in his late thirties at the time of the picture, stands against a sumptuous crimson background dressed in a long red gown with a white, ruffled shirt beneath. His pose is theatrical: his long, slender hands – one raised to his chest, the other on his hip – appear to be active participants in the exposé of his identity. Whether this pose hints to his professional life as a gynaecologist or his personal life as a notorious womanizer we can only guess, but with Sargent nothing is inadvertent and the hands appear to beDr Pozzi.

Sargent’s sense of realism and wit can also be seen in Mrs George Batten Singing (1897). The painting depicts the beautiful mezzo-soprano and musician with her head thrown back, her eyes closed and her ample bosom thrust out toward the viewer. While the title of the painting suggests this is a rendering of a woman in the throes of a singing performance, one cannot help but wonder whether her expression hints at her numerous passionate liaisons, most notably a relationship with the Prince of Wales when she was just 19.

While capturing a veiled identity rather than likeness is what Sargent aims at in these works, in others he captures the constructed identity, and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) is a true masterpiece. In a dramatic pose and use of colour that renders Terry into an evil queen of epic proportion, the painting owes much to the dark world of Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau; it is a place where fantasy meets realism.

The paintings I have mentioned are merely a snapshot of this exhibition which contains many of Sargent’s most revered works – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) and Carolus-Duran (1879) – as well as the landscapes painted en plein air later in his life and some charcoal portrait sketches made during the transition from portrait to landscape. The collection is diverse and engaging.

If the paintings in this exhibition are about identity they are certainly as much about Sargent’s as those that pose in the portraits. His subjects reflect a man who was a gifted musician, a multi-linguist and belonged to many nations: he was born in Italy of American parents, educated in France and called England his home.His technique echoes the realism of Manet  and the masterly brushwork and composition of Velasquez.  London is privileged to host many great exhibitions, but this is the best I have seen in a long time.


Sue Ecclestone
Art journalist

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