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John Singer Sargent

Sargent at the Tate Gallery: Beyond portraits of ladies

The most comprehensive exhibition of Sargent ever mounted shows his bravura painting at its best, and is full of surprises

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted people with nothing to hide. Whether they are arriviste millionaires or established aristocracy, travelling Americans or French society ladies, these denizens of the gilded world of Edwardian society stare out of the canvas, flattered by the glowing touches of Sargent’s bravura paintwork. As the Tate’s seductive advertising poster (see p.31) for the show states, a Victorian lady’s beauty regime began with a portrait by Sargent.

Rodin called him “the Van Dyck of our age” and, by 1907, Sargent had so much work he put an embargo on all future commissions. However, as a portraitist, Sargent has become a victim of the kind of people he painted.

“The Edwardians have been seen as a frivolous society who got their comeuppance with World War I, and Sargent has been tarred with the same brush,” says Richard Ormond, the curator of the show at the TateGallery (until 17 January) and director of the National Maritime Museum. Yet by painting the various members of high society—Jewish financiers side-by-side with English aristos and northern industrialists—Sargent showed an elastic and expansive vision of the upper classes, which revitalised formal portrait painting on the eve of its demise.

It is this broad vision of the artist who, in the past, has been damned for painting the surface of things, which Mr Ormond seeks to convey here. A great-nephew of Sargent, Mr Ormond has grown up defending him. “Roger Fry called him a brilliant manipulator of paint but not really an artist. Sickert envied and mistrusted his seemingly effortless style. One has been aware that he had fallen from grace. But I am asking people to enjoy him for what he is—a damned fine painter.” The public seems to be responding to his call: exhibition attendance has averaged around 2,000 visitors per day.

Despite earlier shows at the National Portrait Gallery in London (1979) and at the Whitney in New York (1987), the 150 works now on display form the most comprehensive display of Sargent ever mounted and the first to tour both England and America.

It chronicles Sargent’s peripatetic life as the son of wealthy Americans who spent years travelling around the capitals of Europe. He came of age as an artist in Paris, studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the famous teacher Carolus-Duran, who taught him to revere the alla prima painting method of Velázquez, who worked in flowing paint directly on canvas.

Although Sargent knew and used the ideas of the Impressionists and was a friend of Monet, whom he painted at work, he never joined their ranks. His painting never dissipated into dabs of colour and he did not feel the same urge to rebel against a figurative, historical style and to paint the modern world.

Still, Sargent’s paintings provide us with a window on the modern manners of his day. The Metropolitan Museum has lent its infamous portrait of madame X (madame Gautreau, a “professional beauty” from New Orleans who had married well) which dazzles but fails to shock 100 years on. Her dress clings to her curvaceous figure but does not reveal too much; her pose may be haughty but her face turns away from the viewer. Hung, as it is, beside the full-length portrait of Dr Pozzi, a Parisian gynaecologist shown at home in a scarlet dressing gown, it leads the modern viewer to wonder why this raffish doctor failed to provoke any comment, whereas mme X’s family had to remove her portrait from the Paris Salon because of the scandal it aroused.

What is extraordinary about walking through this exhibition is the amount of personality each portrait exudes—forever beautiful, if not all young, they seem like guests at a glamorous party to which this show has granted us entrance.

The true surprise of this show is the variety of Sargent’s work and how it all connects together. The spontaneous open-air oil sketches he painted on holidays in Brittany and the landscape studies made in the English countryside, as well as a room full his delicate watercolours of Venice, show a private dimension of his work. Paintings the artist made for himself rather than on commission, such as the stunning picture of the writer Judith Gautier climbing the brow of a hill in Brittany and the portrait of his friend the writer Vernon Lee, show the artist exploring new pictorial ideas—especially the play of light around a face—which he later incorporated into his portraits.

It seems incredible now that when he arrived in London in 1886 after the scandal of the madame Gautreau portrait, Sargent could have been considered too avant-garde. But his heightened palette and broad brushwork inspired by the Impressionists were considered too exotic and French for an English clientele and most of his commissions came from Americans abroad. It was not until the 1892 success of his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw at the Royal Academy that Sargent’s reputation really took off in London.

After this point, his portraits of men become particularly impressive: Lord Ribblesdale appears the essence of the English gentleman—almost a parody of the type, dressed in hunting gear and gazing wearily out of the canvas, whereas Asher Wertheimer wearing a well-cut suit and holding his cigar has the penetrating gaze of a businessman who has arrived. Sargent’s friend and fellow expatriate Henry James (for whom Sargent broke his embargo on new work) appears dark and cerebral, in keeping with his prose.

True, these are not the probing psychological studies of a Titian or a Rembrandt. Yet perhaps what these sitters choose to reveal of themselves says something about who they are. The surface is not necessarily superficial.

Sickert in his mocking essay “Sargentolatry” described his fellow artist’s work as “a compromise between what the painter would like to do and what his employer will put up with.” But go to see this exhibition and then ask yourself: whom would you rather have paint your portrait?

o John Singer Sargent, Tate Gallery, London (until 17 January) travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (21 February-31 May) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (23 June-26 September).

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 87 December 1999