John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery
12 February – 25 May 2015
If you did not know this was a John Singer Sargent exhibition, you would think this a highly skilled collection of artist’s work that showcases a range of styles and techniques. But it isn’t, clearly, which makes this not just a remarkable display of well-executed paintings, but a celebration of Sargent’s achievement of such a prolific and impressive range of artwork.
The vast majority of works on display in this exhibition are portrait paintings of artists, friends, poets, singers, musicians, figureheads of the art world, all of whom Sargent seems to be well connected with. Notable names include Henry James, whose novels often feature front cover artwork by Sargent such as What Maisie Knew, the cover showing detail of a young girl from Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. There are also portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose distinctive face makes for a very unusual portrait indeed. Others include Coventry Patmore, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, the actress Ellen Terry and a fascinating charcoal of William Butler Yeats.
The exhibition is accompanied with a pocket-size guide on all sixty-eight artworks, mostly giving biographical details on Sargent’s revered circle of friends. While this is fascinating to have such a record, it feels an overload of information that detracts from the paintings themselves. Ironically, it also makes one feel that they know less about Sargent than they did before entering the gallery; instead you could title the exhibition ‘A gallery of prominent cultural figures.’ This is to deflect from Sargent as an individual, showing the character of others instead, except perhaps to explore his own relationship with them. Intimate and informal portraits are here offered of friends, as Sargent would see them and not as formal portraiture.
Born in Florence and the son of American expatriates, Sargent’s paintings are displayed in rooms according to location: time spent in Paris, London, Boston and New York. He is a man well-travelled and paints with familiarity places far-reaching from rural Worcestershire to the Alps; this partly perhaps explains why he has universal appeal.
One cannot help but feel the scale of this rare exhibition bringing together such an important collection of work by one of the World’s greatest portrait painters.
For more information visit: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php
Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery on until 25th May 2015
by Heather Wells