London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

Amazing exhibition of Sargent, at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

David Franchi – Saturday, 18th April 2015.

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907 © Art Institute of Chicago

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907 © Art Institute of Chicago

The Sargent exhibition is startling, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. For the first time, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition brings together in London, a collection of Sargent warm and familiar portraits of his extraordinary circle of friends, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin.

“Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” is a major exhibition about works by one of the world’s most celebrated portrait painters. It follows the artist time in Paris, London, Boston and New York as well as his travels in the Italian and English countryside.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition brings to London some rarely displayed works. Notable loans are coming from galleries and private collections in Europe and America, including Musée Rodin, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Musée d’Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

John Singer Sargent was born in Firenze (Italy) on 12th January 1856 from American parents, who moved to Europe from Philadelphia (USA) two years before. Sargent revealed an artistic talent since young age and in 1873 started to attend courses at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Firenze.

The exhibition “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” tracks the artist life. The rooms, in fact, are grouped and named following the period s of the life of Sargent. At the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition rooms from 1 to 4 are titled ‘Paris, 1874-1885’. In 1874 he moved to Paris, where he initially studied under the guidance of Carolus Duran, who introduced him to the Impressionist painting. In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France.

In 1876 Sargent made his first trip to the US. In 1878 he was accepted at the Salon for the first time and began to be

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d'Orsay, Paris (R.F. 746)

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d’Orsay, Paris (R.F. 746)

acknowledged by critics, and during the summer he went to Naples, then to Capri. There, he had the opportunity to know and appreciate the painting of Antonio Mancini, with whom an intense friendship and a fertile artistic exchange was established. In 1901, Mancini went to London on the advice of Sargent, who introduced him to the high English society, giving him important commissions for official portraits of personalities.

In 1879, Sargent went to Spain, where he was hit by the paintings of Diego Velázquez, and the Netherlands, in particular Frans Hals.

In 1884, Sargent returned to the Salon (Paris), but received so much criticism that he decided to move to England.

At “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” exhibition, the rooms 5 and 6 are named ‘Broadway, 1885-1889’. Sargent moved to London, where he met other painters and American writers, including Edwin Austin Abbey and Henry James, who had influence in building his mature style. It was at this time that he began his remarkable commercial success and his professional achievement: specializing mainly in portrait of psychological value.

In 1886 Sargent set up a studio in trendy Chelsea, London. In 1887 he returned for the second time in the United States, painting portraits and great cycles of murals in public buildings in Boston and New York. In 1889, he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and was appointed Knight of the Legion of Honour.

At the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the room 7 is organized in two areas ‘Boston and New York, 1888- 1912’ and ‘London 1889 -1913’. Such as his parents, Sargent was a traveller who visited and worked in many places in his life.

In 1894 he was appointed associate at the Royal Academy in London, and in 1897 he became a full member.

In the 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon (Paris) mostly full-length of women. He continued to receive positive critical notice, as his best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters.

Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

Carolus Duran by John Singer Sargent, 1879 © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA (photo by Michael Agee)

In this room there is an interesting series of sketching that reveals his mastery in the medium. Also Sargent produced more than 2,000 watercolours in his career, some of them on display at the “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” exhibition.

The last room 8, ‘Europe, 1899 -1914’, is focused on the period Sargent was travelling in the continent. Works on display are mostly landscapes. In 1907, in fact, he announced he abandoned portraiture in favour of landscapes, exotic people, and watercolours – but he never really did it.

During the First World War he was sent by England to the front lines in France, where he worked as an official war artist to cover the horrors of modern warfare. In 1922, Sargent co-founded New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries together with other artists.

He then returned to England, where he died on 14th April 1925 of heart disease. Sargent is interred in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.

Sargent always had alternate fortune with critics, but nowadays he is considered a master, and his works recently auctioned millions of US dollars.

Key exhibits include the only two surviving portraits Sargent painted of his friend and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, which are displayed together for the first time since they were painted in the 1880s. Also reunited in the exhibition are Sargent’s portraits of the Pailleron family. The bohemian writer Édouard Pailleron and his wife were among Sargent’s earliest French patrons, to whom the young artist owed much of his early success. Their individual portraits are displayed alongside Sargent’s portrait of their children, Édouard and Marie-Louise, for the first time in over a century.

Other exhibition highlights include Sargent’s important portrait of his master Carolus Duran (1879), which played a

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 © Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 © Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

pivotal role in the development of his career after it was praised in the 1879 Paris Salon; his charcoal drawing of the celebrated poet William Butler Yeats (1908); and three of his greatest theatrical portraits painted between 1889 and 1890: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Edwin Booth and La Carmencita, the wild Spanish dancer.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is organised in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to which it will tour in June 2015. Richard Ormond CBE has curated the exhibition with advice from H. Barbara Weinberg, the Metropolitan Museum’s Curator Emerita of American Paintings and Sculpture and a Sargent scholar. It is curated in New York by Elizabeth Kornhauser, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Stephanie Herdrich, Research Associate, both of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. The curator in London is Dr Peter Funnell, Curator of 19thCentury Portraits and Head of Research Programmes at the National Portrait Gallery.

Sponsored by Close Brothers, “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” was made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art. It is supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and by the American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Sargent Exhibition Supporters Group.

The exhibition “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” will be open from 12th February until 25th May 2015, at the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.

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