Saturday 15 August 2015

Art Review: Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, Metropolitan Museum, New York City

Edouard and Marie Louise Pailleron (1881)
This wonderful exhibition, a collaboration between the Met and the National Portrait Gallery in London (where it has already appeared), shows the personal side to John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) portraiture. With virtuosic skill, and a graceful informality, Sargent renders the expressions of the friends and artists he associated with – at home or in his studio, but also caught mid-speech, mid-performance, and mid-song.

Francois Flameng and Paul Helleu (1885)
The exhibition is extensive and, in each painting, there is something new to discover and admire. There is the dynamism of unusual double portrait of fellow artists Francois Flameng and Paul Helleu, the penetrative stare of Marie Louise Pailleron, contrasted with the movement suggested in her brother’s pose, the seductive charm of Madame X, which caused a scandal at the painting’s first appearance in 1884 (before her right-hand dress strap was repainted to position it securely on her shoulder).

Madame X (1884)
While it is the portraits’ execution that is most intriguing, their subjects too are notable, especially for lovers of nineteenth-century art, literature and culture. The exhibition includes Sargent’s paintings of close friend (and fellow American expatriate) Henry James, and writer of the supernatural Violet Paget, better known by her pseudonym Vernon Lee.

Henry James (1913)
Also included is Sargent’s depiction of celebrated Victorian actress Ellen Terry, as Lady Macbeth, placing the diadem on her own head, while amateur singer Mabel Batten is also captured in the throws of a performance.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)
Sargent, unlike many of his contemporaries was a proponent of Realism, and some of the portraits here do appear so lifelike you feel they could walk straight into the gallery today – such as that of gentleman gynaecologist Dr Pozzi or artist W. Graham Robertson – while others bear the hallmarks of the era’s interest in Impressionism.

Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home (1881)
While Sargent suffered a decline in reputation posthumously partly as a result of his unfashionable Realism, today, in an age where instant digital photography is our primary means of capturing a likeness, the sight of such hyper-realism achieved through paint feels particularly impressive. These 90 portraits show as the personal side to the very private Sargent, rather than the masterful society painter at work. These people were his friends, his artistic circle, and his confidantes – and, thanks to his talent, they almost feel as if they could be ours too.

The Secret Victorianist looks at W. Graham Robertson (1894)
Sargent: Portraits ofArtists and Friends will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum until October 4 (with General Admission).

Vernon Lee (1881)
Do you know of any other nineteenth-century art exhibitions the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

1 comment:

  1. I've always admired his work. Thank you for this interesting blog and lovely pictures. I've just completed my third Virginia Woolf novel in a row. Her ability to put us into the heads of her early 20th century characters is highly complemented by the art you show here by Sargent. Thank you for making that artistic connection.