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Cranleigh DFAS visits the National Portrait Gallery

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

Thursday 12th March 2015

On a beautiful March day we visited the National Portrait Gallery to see the Sargent exhibition.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to an expatriate American couple who never returned to America, Singer himself spending most of his life in Europe.  He lived for many years in London in Chelsea and died there in 1925 but retained his American citizenship in spite of his peripatetic life in Europe.  As a young man he trained in Florence and then at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he arrived in 1874 which was the year of the first Impressionist Exhibition.  Many of the Impressionists were to became his friends and he admired and was influenced by their 'plein air' landscapes and more informal style of painting.  Sophisticated, cosmopolitan and mutilingual, Sargent had a wide circle of friends who were actors, writers, musicians and artists and the paintings in this exhibition were rarely commissioned.  This gave him the latitude to paint in a more intimate and less formal way.

There were about seventy paintings in the exhibition and the time and place line was sometimes difficult to follow but given the more informal circumstances in which they were painted many are striking and unexpected.  We all have an idea of what a famous subject looks like but the reality is sometimes somewhat surprising especially as a painting seems to encapsulate the sitter's personality in a way that photographs rarely can and many in this exhibition are memorable.

There was impressive Rodin with a craggy face and a magnificent forked beard making sense of why Gwen John was besotted by him; neat Monet looking like a prosperous business man; Albert Falconetti, a lonely and portly figure sitting on a mountain top on a stool which does not look as if it will hold his weight; Coventry Patmore with wild hair and an immensely high collar which threatens to throttle him; a haunting and mysterious portrait of Eleonora Duse which was painted very quickly in which she seems to emerge from a fog; an immensely dramatic portrait of Ellen Terry in Shakespearean dress; Mrs Frederick Barnard, the mother of Polly and Dolly, models for the beautiful and delicate Lily, Lily, Rose and Alice, possibly Singer's best known painting, is overwhelmed by what must be the ultimate white meringue dress; and Faure with flowing hair and moustaches and a remarkably silly little tuft of a goatee beard appears in two portraits.  In general the Victorians and Edwardians depicted were remarkably hirsute with some very strange and inventive beards.

Striking and unexpected was Henry James, bald, fat, with pursed lips.  In his striped waistcoat and gold chain he resembles a captain of industry, the ultimate fat cat, and Singer Sargent in a self portrait looks pompous and self satisfied.  There were two wonderful almost impressionistic portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson.  In one, he is sits shrunken into an armchair looking very thin and ill and in the other he is striding like an exuberant and emaciated stick insect while on the edge of the painting there is a vague impression of his wife swathed in gold draperies sitting on a sofa.

In New York Singer Sargent painted a series of theatre portraits including a magnificent full length one of the slim, handsome saturnine Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth who looks out at us with haunted eyes as possibly befits someone whose brother killed Abraham Lincoln.

His pencil drawings were remarkable.  Dame Ethel Smyth is depicted as strong, happy and confident with one amazing pencil line outlining her face, and his sketch of William Butler Yeats with his thin Irish face, tumbling forelock and floppy cravat was almost my favourite portrait in the whole exhibition.

It is ironic that John Singer Sargent, the outstanding portrait painter of his generation, towards the end of his life abandoned portraiture and returned to his first love which was landscape painting continuing to paint following the example of the Impressionists.

For those of us who had the time, energy and inclination to explore further the National Portrait Gallery is a treasure trove.  There was a small exhibition devoted to Wellington, particularly apposite as we have recently had a lecture about paintings of Wellington's battles.  Goya's famous portrait of Wellington proud in his red tunic and medals appears on one wall whilst opposite it and equally impressive is an unfinished portrait by Thomas Lawrence in which a tired Wellington in a grey cloak looks somehow more human and closer to the real man.  In contrast there is a daguerrotype of an elderly stooped Wellington, all arrogance gone.  There was also an amazing eight and a half minute moving painting of Wellington's funeral procession, lavish by any standard, in which his horse was led with riding boots reversed in the stirrups to signify the death of his rider.

Parliamentary paintings appeared in a small exhibit, a subject which we have also recently explored in a lecture, and dotted among the galleries in a sort of treasure hunt were fourteen examples of Grayson Perry's work.  Particularly impressive was his Map of Days which was a complex black and white pictorial autobiography and a work entitled Comfort Blanket.  The accompanying text told how the mother of an Hungarian friend of Perry's had called Britain her safety blanket and that refugees arriving from Hungary on a BA plane at the time of the revolution had been greeted by the Queen's voice coming over the tannoy saying “Welcome to Britain.  You are in a safe country”.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends shows the painter in relaxed mode.  It was very common for artists to paint fellow artists and friends informally and socially and the fact that in most cases money was unlikely to have changed hands make this a delightful exhibition as the circumstances allowed Sargent to transgress rules imposed in formal and commissioned portraiture.

Ann Brookes

Related Link (opens in new window):

Sargent exhibition website