Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery

Exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery have taken an interesting turn lately and while a show is dedicated to the life of one individual, you leave having learned a huge amount about the times in which they lived and the interaction of various different groups within the cultural world. Last year the Gallery successfully staged a major David Bailey retrospective that told us a lot about his origins in the East End, his travelogue years and the host of artistic figures with whom he spent his time. This year, it uses his portraits to shine a light into the world of painter John Singer Sargent.

Sargent is an artist I know best for his First World War paintings including the stunning Gassed which is on permanent view at the Imperial War Museum, although Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth have long been highlights of Tate Britain’s freely available gallery selection, both of which have made the journey up Whitehall to this exhibition. His Great War paintings are beautiful and complex, mixing seemingly opposed ideas such as the disaster of war with a hint of hope and safety, but this exhibition focuses on the years until 1914. The way he paints light and the seemingly glamorous sheen of his subjects mean he’s often unfavourably compared to seventeenth-century master Van Dyck, court artist to Charles I, but in painting friends and fellow artists Sargent’s skill at capturing personality and surroundings becomes clear.

The exhibition begins with Sargent living in France and Italy, containing four rooms of portraits he composed from 1874-1885. The signs next to the pictures only tell you the name of the person but all the information about them and their relationship with Sargent is contained in the detailed guide given either at the ticket desk or exhibition entrance. I really like this touch and it shows a gallery that’s in tune with its audience. So often now guides are only available via app and for those without smart phones (and given the age demographic of the people I saw there that’s going to be an awful lot of people who go to art exhibitions) we miss out on this information. And in a packed space it also reduces the queuing time to read it on the sign, this way you can look at the picture and then move away somewhere quieter to read the background without holding everyone else up.

Anyway back to the work in Paris, there are a lot of notable pictures here, not least the theatrical Dr Pozzi at Home, a well know gynaecologist seen here in a bright scarlet dressing gown which has shades of Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richlieu, and Sargent’s first work at the Royal Academy. As well as the central figure, Sargent also uses the background and light in his work to interesting effect to create atmosphere and tone; a perfect of example of which is Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola which is most interesting for the formal looking man against the beautiful reflective quality of the water.

For many the portraits of Rodin and Monet will be most fascinating, both of whom Sargent admired and tried to emulate, creating a strong impression of the world in which these artists lived and worked together. Yet, quite another picture catches the eye, one which has a style rather different to those around it and showing the rehearsal of the Cirque d’Hiver orchestra. I liked the mix of impressionistic style and the sense of dynamic movement the painting has, like you can feel them performing. It also felt more modern than those around it.

Leaving the continent behind in the mid-1880s, Sargent came to England where he painted what is for me his most beautiful non-war picture, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose inspired by a scene he witnessed from The Thames, combining all his skills for painting people with enchanting backgrounds and depiction of light. Especially lovely is the way the lanterns illuminate the children’s faces showing a particular moment of dusk-light as the sun sets, while the floral backdrop has an English country garden meets oriental effect. Monet’s painting outdoors influence is evident. Even better you can usually see this painting for free at Tate Britain any time you like. But it’s from this point that I realised that the really fascinating part of Sargent’s work is not the people necessarily but the context in which their painted, which becomes even more apparent in the next room.

The paintings of Boston and London all have one thing in common – the sitter is almost invariably shown against a dark or opaque background, and as you wander around these pictures you get a feeling of stifling nineteenth-century city life, in cluttered rooms, smoky cities and somewhat oppressive society – in fact these portraits look exactly how reading a Henry James novel feels (and James himself is one of those on show in this room). From the haughty looking dancer La Carmencita to the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and fellow artist W. Graham Robertson, the backdrops are gloomy to make you focus on the personality of the sitter but also imply something of the nature of Victorian city-life. In a lovely contrast, this room also displays a few incredible charcoal sketches which are so skilful they look as though someone has drawn over a photograph – particularly the one of the poet Yeats and actress Mary Anderson.

In the final room, Sargent escapes the repressive atmosphere of the city and returns to light openness of countryside and seascapes in Southern Europe. His Group with Parasols shows intermingled friends contentedly asleep on the grass, while The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy is a similarly relaxed scene of a female artist at work as her husband snoozes beside her. These are a lovely end to the exhibition taking you up to 1914 and hinting at the some of the incredibly evocative work Sargent would produce of people and desolate landscapes in the Great War.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is a brilliant insight into the work of a skilled and varied artist, one whose talent was dismissed in the early part of the Twentieth-century. As with their previous shows, the key here is not just being able to see around 70 paintings but the way in which these chart both the life Sargent was living in terms of his location and progression as an artist, but also the nature of the world he inhabited – one full of artists, musicians, actors, dancers and patrons. This exhibition reminds us that not only could Sargent paint accurate portraits of any sitter but brought to them a sense of personality and multiple references to the lives they lived.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is at the National Portrait Gallery until 25 May. Tickets are £14.50, although the concession prices are not much less. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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