Sargent and friends-National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery in London is hosting a large exhibition of John Singer Sargent's paintings. It mainly concentrates on portraits of friends, peers, and fellow painters. I offer here an overview of selected works, in no way a full review of the show.
An interesting timeline allows to put his life events in context with photographs.
This exhibition has some familiar highlights, that many will recognise, but also some lesser known intimate and personal pieces
Not many paintings illustrate the skills of a student equalling (or even surpassing) those of the teacher, as strongly as this defiant portrait of Carolus-Duran. Sargent was 23 years old when he painted this.
Henry James was a friend and supporter of Sargent. He capitalized on the scandal in Paris made by Sargent's Madame X, and finally convinced him to move to London. Commissioned by friends of the novelist for his 70th birthday, Sargent confided that 'having stopped portraiture for these past 3-4 years, he had "quite lost his nerve" about it'. I think we can safely say that he managed just fine!
Dr Pozzi (here seen in a photo) was the father of modern French Gynaecology. In 1918, he was curiously murdered by a unhappy patient of his, Maurice Machu, who's amputated leg apparently led to his impotence. He demanded a second operation to remedy the situation, but when Dr Pozzi refused, his patient shot him four times in the stomach. Maurice Machu later committed suicide.
Much has been written on this next painting, 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose'. "The portrait is a deliberately conceived and constructed work poised between several aesthetics: French impressionism, English Pre-Raphaelitism and aestheticism while the flower imagery references the paintings of the Italian Renaissance and their poetic symbolism." It was painted in Worcestershire, and the ispiration fo rit apparently came froma boating trip up the Thames, where he saw 2 little girls lighting paper lanterns in this very setting.
This painting was also referred to by Sargent, in moments of frustration as; "Damnation , Silly, Silly, Pose!"
Of the lesser known paintings, the ones that stand out are the portraits of Italian landscape painters Ambrogio Raffaele, and Alberto Falchetti.
Here we have Ambrogio Raffaele, in a scene where we presume the artist is working on a large landscape composition from smaller sketches, and studies. A wonderful painting in itself, but also an insightful glimpse into the life of a painter back in the day, and a specific process of landscape painting back in the studio, from 'plein-air' sketches.
Here we have Alberto Falchetti. This portrait is strikingly abstract in composition, with the black pattern of his jacket fusing with beard, fusing with hair and hat, and shadow of the door frame of the left of the painting. All these shapes fusing together makes one large strong shape, framing the face and separating away the details in the background. When you squint at this painting, what remains light is not only the face, but also the 3 vertical stripes of light behind the figure. These vertical stripes contrasting drastically with the ellipse of the hat's brim, make for an anchor point for our eye, keeping our attention around the face of the sitter.
An even rarer sight, is a Sargent self-portrait. It is usually hung the famous Vasari corridor, as part of the Uffizi collection of distinguished artists' self-portraits stretching back to the Renaissance. The generous paint application is striking, and the elegant pink accent for the frown wrinkle is such a simple and effective detail to create the expression. I think I remember this was done in Florence, and perhaps Sargent caught a bit of sun. The overbearing warm tones of reds & pinks are balanced by only 2 cool notes; One is at the center of the forehead at the hairline, and the second is the grey accent in the beard. It is believed that he did not relish in self-portraiture, which perhaps explains the slightly defiant look here.
The most dazzling and colourful composition takes the form of several figures resting under parasols, during one of Sargent's mountain painting trips.
At first, I actually couldn't understand who's those brown legs belonged to, until I realised that the beige blob on the central woman's tummy was a man's head. it's very obvious once you know it, but when up close, this painting is chaotic soup of colour.
Antonio Mancini makes an appearance, with a painting that has an interesting provenance. Sargent painted it in a little over an hour, as a gift to Mancini, who then in turn gave it to Asher Wertheimer's cook. It eventually made its way back to Sargent, who kept it as part of his personal collection, but later donated it to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Rome in 1925, as tribute to his friend whom he considered to be a great painter.
Another swift sitting, of barely an hour with actress Eleonora Duse, gives us an interesting insight into Sargent's blocking-in process. Barely 3 colour tones in the face enables a simple construction, which even at this stage can obtain a very specific expression. A great use of time, by employing great economy of colour and tone. Just one colour for the whole face (even if he uses a half-tone in the eye-sockets, and under chin), one colour for the background, with a darker mix for the hair. A great insight into how a painting ought to start out. Essentially 3 colours: Dark brown (maybe castle earth?), Ochre, and White. Red only makes an appearance as a hint of pink in the lips and ear.
The exhibition is up until 25th May 2015.