London welcomes Sargent’s portraits

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“They all have mood. Every one of them has a different mood.” So said Andy Warhol of the portraits of John Singer Sargent, over 70 of which are shown at London’s National Portrait Gallery in a major exhibition this spring.

It’s a must-see blockbuster show, gathering together rarely seen, intimate portraits of Sargent’s friends alongside commissioned portraits, all of which display the painter’s skill and virtuoso technique. Gathered together for the first time in over a century are all of Sargent’s paintings of his early patrons, the Pailleron family, as well as the two portraits he painted of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, which haven’t been seen together since they were painted in the 1880s.

Sargent left behind 900 oil paintings, of which a fine selection will be on view in this latest exhibition. They include both formal ‘swagger portraits’, designed to emphasise the wealth and status of his subjects, for which he charged rich individuals large sums of money, and which made him famous; and also intimate, fond and more experimental depictions of some of his closest friends. These tend to feature more unusual compositions and styling. Sargent had close friendships with some of the most influential people of the era, including writer Robert Louis Stevenson, poet W.B. Yeats, artist Claude Monet and sculptor Auguste Rodin, all of whom can be seen here, alongside a host of fascinating but lesser-known characters, including actors, artists and musicians. You won’t be able to miss wild Spanish dancer La Carmencita, or actress Ellen Terry in character as Lady Macbeth.

Sargent’s work garnered mixed reviews during his lifetime. Born in 1856 to American parents, he trained in Italy and France and lived almost all his life between London and Paris. He died in England in 1925, having earned a reputation as one of the world’s finest portrait artists, and the title ‘the Van Dyck of our times’. But he also encountered criticism, notably in the form of influential art critic Roger Fry, of the Bloomsbury Group, who considered Sargent a master craftsman, but not a truly creative artist.


Another incident that affected Sargent’s reputation was the furore surrounding his infamous, controversial portrait of the lady he called Madame X (1884). Haughty, pale and sensual, and clad in a plain low-cut dress with thin straps, Madame X was, in fact, married; the scandal drove Sargent out of Paris and into London. It is now considered to be one of his greatest works, and is also reported to have been Sargent’s personal favourite – he kept the painting in his studio for years afterwards.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is made up of important loans from galleries and private collections. It’s showing at the National Portrait Gallery in London from 12th February until 25th May, and will later move on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Tickets are available online at National Portrait Gallery.