Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends


The peculiarity of John Singer Sargent’s upbringing, as an American born in Florence, allowed him to present a unique insight on both American and European culture during the 19th century. The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates not only this insight but also the skill and position in society that Sargent used to depict it. He quickly rose to fame due to the controversial painting of Madame X, which was sadly not included in the exhibition, and despite the notoriety swiftly became the portraitist of choice for high society. This allowed him to paint the great and the good with relatively security as his reputation would no longer be destroyed with a brush stroke. Nevertheless he still took great pride in his work, once repainting an entire head when he heard the sitter was disappointed with the original result.

Famous faces crowd the walls and each suggests a personality bubbling beneath the oil paint surface. I was fascinated to learn of Sargent’s friendship with Monet, who he painted with his wife over several years and kept one of these paintings in his studio throughout his life. When painting friends Sargent could be more experimental and this often shows through in the simplicity of his palette and the more unusual composition or setting of his subjects. This is especially evident in his paintings of Robert Louis Stevenson, which catch the writer as he strides across a room or sprawls in a chair. He is not treated with reverence as a writer but more interestingly is shown as a man who is married and part of a household. Apparently Stevenson’s wife thought when only the hand in one of the paintings was finished that it was already the best portrait that had been done of her husband.

I particularly enjoyed the paintings of Ellen Terry as I felt they captured her formidable character better than any photographs I have seen of her before. They also portrayed her as an actor of great skill, terrifying all around her as Lady Macbeth, which was unusual for a time which often saw actresses as aberrations or amateurs. I almost felt that I could see Terry mid speech as she claws her way to Scottish power. The detail on this particular painting was very intricate, with gold twisted into her long hair and the feathers glistening on her dress so it was also interesting as a depiction of Victorian stagecraft as well as Terry’s personality.

Unfortunately this exhibition is almost over and is only open until the 25th of May but I would still recommend it if you do get the chance to go!

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3 thoughts on “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

  1. I enjoyed this exhibition very much – particularly the portraits completed after very limited sittings which demonstrate his exceptional technical skill but also the ability to capture the essence of a personality.

    I was interested by your choice of Ellen Terry to illustrate this post. I saw another portrait of Terryr today at the Watt Gallery where she is in the foreground of the Frith painting ‘ A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881’ shown mingling with high society including Trollope, Wilde, the Lord Chief Justice of England, and the Archbishop of York. Definitely a respectable actress by this stage in her career.

  2. Excellent post! I just saw the show in New York. The portrait of Terry has long been a favorite of mine. Absolutely stunning.

    I was interested by what you said about how it shows us Terry…really I can’t think of another painting or even photo generally that gives one a true grasp of a such famous performance well before film etc. Sargent does it . He somehow creates footage of Terry in our mind . We see the crazed eyes , we see the flashing gown etc.

    To me Terry’s Lady Macbeth looks terrified…as she was once she slew Duncan . Terry is standing on the roof top of her craft and a brilliant carer, much as Lady Macbeth is at that moment …Sargent captures it all . And yet it’s a moment that is not in the play nor did Terry strike that that pose on stage…however the it illustrates the role superbly . Sargent painted a vision Lady Macbeth had in her mind, just as she loses it

    Madame X is deemed too fragile to travel. But her home is the Met, so she is on display here in New York . The painting was a serious stumble at the beginning of a career as a portrait painter . Patrons wanted perhaps a dash of scandal, but not such notoriety , nor to look so sickly!

    Also I believe the timing was off. It harken back to an era just finished. The late Victorians wanted to appear more robust than the sensitive types of the 1870’s . Sargent kept working and soon over came that misstep brilliantly as we know.

    1. Thank you for your comment! It was very interesting to hear your thoughts on the Sargent exhibition now that it is installed at the Met. Sadly, I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t find Madame X then so must have just missed it as they prepared it for the exhibition. I will just have to go back!

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