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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends


obert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887

Copyright: Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio


National Portrait Gallery


12 February – 25 May 2015

 John Singer Sargent is a painter respected on both sides of the Atlantic. From the Impressionist revolution in 1874 to the aftermath of WW1, he travelled extensively and made friends easily. In this major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery the focus is his friends and contemporaries, among them Auguste Rodin, Gabriel Faure and Robert Louis Stevenson. In room after room of ravishing, masterly portraiture, it comes as no surprise that his circle is wide ranging and eclectic. What is a surprise is the breadth of story-telling he teased out from the genre.


Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent, 1901.

National Portrait Gallery, London


The select introduction features Madam Allouard Jouan, 1882, and Judith Gutier, last love and muse of Richard Wagner, 1883. Sargent captures their essence in rich, contrasting tones. Yet the striking black and white Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque D’Hiver, 1877 – 80, draws the eye, to paraphrase David Hockney. And that party still goes on.

A Dinner Table at Night, 1884, shows him experimenting with off-kilter interiors and red tones. The male figure is marginalised, the female slightly off-centre. Linked to its companion piece The Birthday Party, 1885, the fiery, venal red in both pictures explodes in his full length portrait of a red-robed Dr Pozzi at Home, 1881. Yet nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of Carnation Lily, Lily Rose, 1885-6. Sargent was boating down the Thames at dusk and came upon two children lighting paper lanterns in a garden full of roses: ‘a paradisiac sight.’ The reflection of light in their faces is exquisite, while their absorption in the task, all-consuming.


Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881

Copyright: Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa


Robert Louis Stevenson and Wife, 1885, like A Dinner Table at Night shows his wife marginalised on the right, hardly distinguishable at all. At the centre is an open door leading to a small vestibule and the front door. To the left Stevenson is caught ‘alert with nervous energy‘, looking at us. It is striking in its secrecy; similarly, the beautiful, relaxed pose of Mrs Frank Millet, 1885 – 6 who leans forward in a miasma of blue/indigo colouring. Is it to peer more closely at us or for us to hear more clearly what she has to say?

The central space is the jewel in the crown; the portraiture lavish with a great cast of characters. At one end is La Carmencita, 1896, the larger-than-life flamenco dancer, spun out of gold; at the other, two exquisite portraits of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889. In one she flies from her castle. In the other she crowns herself after Duncan’s death. It’s iconic with its Pre-Raphaelite tropes: red hair, profusion of flowers and singular, legendary subject. Her dress, designed by Alice Comyns Carr, is green silk and blue tinsel, sewn with red beetle wings. The painting is sumptuous.

In the middle is the portrait of the American, Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth, 1890, the picture of sobriety and prestige; and in an ironic counterpoint, the formidable Art Dealer Asher Wertheimer, 1897, with cigar and loll-tongued dog looking every inch the stage villain. There’s the incredible Mrs George Batten Singing, 1897, head tilted in a moment of sublimation, recalling Sargent’s profile portrait of Edmund Gosse, 1886. There are also some fine black and white drawings of Harley Granville Barker, 1900, in ‘his first flush of theatrical success,’ the poet WB Yeats with his raffish hair, 1908, and the novelist George Meredith with his reflective eyes.

Group with Parasols, 1904, shows a melee of bodies amid the nature that surrounds them. Where does one entity end and another begin? The Ville Torre Galli: The Loggia, 1910, juxtaposes the outside/in and its balance and composition recalls Robert Louis Stevenson and Wife. Sargent offers studies in age, youth, men, women and natural, aesthetic, emotional landscapes. His art is fluid, idiosyncratic in tone, composition and he captures his friends and contemporaries in the midst of life and light. ‘Sargent is good company,’ said Yeats, ‘not so much like an artist as like some wealthy man of business who has lived with artists.’  This superb exhibition enlightens and delights.



Group with Parasols by John Singer Sargent, c.1904–5

Private collection
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London WC2H 0HE
Open Daily 10.00 – 18.00, Thursdays & Fridays 21.00
Tickets £16, Concessions £14.50

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