Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Major new Singer Sargent exhibition announced - in London and New York

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends will be on display next year at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I'm sure this will delight many fans of portraiture!

This morning I went to the launch event for this new exhibition which has been five years in the making.  The exhibition is going to be a unique perspective of some 70 paintings and works on paper by John Singer Sargent - one of the greatest portrait painters of all time.

The focus will be on portraits of the artists, writers, actors, dancers, and musicians of his time.  It will review the relationship he had as a painter and an individual with a number of those who were involved with contemporary developments in the arts, music, literature and theatre. It will reveal the depth of his appreciation of culture and his close friendships with many of the leading artists, actors and writers of the time - including Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Gabriel Fauré and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Dates for the exhibition - and your diary - are:
  • National Portrait Gallery: 12 February - 25 May 2015
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art: 29 June - 4 October 2015
The exhibition has been extremely fortunate in the loans promised for the exhibition - many of which come from private collections as well as the permanent collections of some of the world's great art galleries. His great nephew Richard Ormond CBE, co-author of the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné, is curator of the exhibition in London - at the Gallery where he used to be The Keeper and Deputy Director. The recently retired Curator of American paintings and sculpture will mastermind the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The original idea behind the exhibition was to provide a different perspective on Sargent the man and to reveal a more thoughtful person behind the portraits that he produced.

There has been a suspicion voiced by some, notably Roger Fry, that Sargent was a superficial painter. There is an explanation of how this view came to be voiced (it relates to a Sargent comment on Fry's exhibition of Post Impressionist paintings) on Natasha Wallace's excellent John Singer Sargent website

An attempt was then made to "airbrush him" out of the development of modern art said Ormond this morning. He also commented that this was despite the fact that some of his later paintings not being unlike those of Cezanne.

He told us that Sargent was a very cultivated man who was immersed in the arts of his time. He was widely read, particularly French literature, and was also deeply musical and an enthusiastic promoter of young musicians. He was also a friend to a very wide range of artists, writers, actors and musicians.

His paintings of his friends are also more intimate and informal unlike the grandest piece portraits he executed for commissions. He could also afford to take a more experimental approach in terms of both composition and application of paint when it came to painting friends.

Sargent was a child of American ex pats. He was born in Florence and lived his life in Europe, visiting most of the major art galleries and art collections while still a child.  He was recognised to be very talented in relation to art while still a child and was sent to study in Paris. Subsequently he became one of the most popular portrait artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was regularly commissioned to produce portraits. So much so that by 1907, at the age of 50, he gave up portraiture for the paintings and mural work which he wanted to do. In part because he'd had enough of paintings with "an anxious relative hanging on every brush mark".

His paintings of artists and friends were however another form of portraiture and he continued to paint them long after he gave up portrait commissions. These are more informal and are often painted plein air.

The exhibition will have five sections (and I hope I've got these right below). These focus on:
  • Living, studying and working in Paris 1874-1888
  • Brief stays in America in 1888 - where he became an established portrait painter
  • and Broadway, Worcestershire in 1888 where he lived and worked alongside a group of Anglo Americans
  • Living and working in London 1889-1913
  • Painting trips with friends 1899-1914


The exhibition will include his fabulous portrait of his teacher Carolus Duran. This played an enormously important part of the development of his career as a portrait painter after it was exhibited at the Paris salon and praised.

Broadway and painting trips with friends

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy 
by John Singer Sargent, 1907
Copyright: Art Institute of Chicago
Two sections of the exhibition will focus on the portraits and plein air figure groups painted during the time he spent living in Broadway, in Worcestershire and those he painted after 1900 while travelling in Europe during summer and autumns holidays from his portrait commissions.

Typically these holidays took him to Venice, the Alps and the southern Mediterranean countries such as Greece and particularly Corfu.

On the right is a painting which will be in the exhibition of a couple who often focused in his paintings of artists and friends. Close up visitors to the exhibition will be able to see how Sargent painted with dazzling speed while painting plain air.

This is a link to a photo of Sargent painting at Broadway.


Portrait of Henry James 1913
Drawing of Henry James
by John Singer Sargent
Wikimedia Commons
Paintings in London will include his portrait of his friend the author Henry James which forms part of the NPG Collection.

James was another American living in London. He was a major sponsor of Singer Sargent when he came to live in London - and indeed they lived near one another.  (Sargent lived at 31 Tite Street in Chelsea  and had his studio at 33 Tite Street)

I discovered from Richard in fiction both entry James? Ormond that there is a book by a lady called Adele tanner about how Sargent appears singer Sargent and James were also both Americans who ere in effect outsiders looking in on the social scene in London. They we very close friends and ,iced near to one another in Chelsea.

Key paintings in the exhibition will include two paintings of his friend the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde) executed at a house in Bournemouth.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885) by John Singer Sargent
Collection: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, USA
These will be displayed together for the very first time since they were painted in the 1880s. The inclusion of these paintings will be a particular pleasure for Sandy Nairne, Director of the NPG who is a big fan of the painting of Stevenson and his wife.

Sadly the emphasis is going to be more on his oil paintings rather than his watercolours which I am a huge fan of. Also there are no plans at present to exhibit any of his sketchbooks which I think is a pity. I did however suggest that it would be really wonderful to be able to see at least one of his sketchbooks in the exhibition especially as the focus is on the intimate side of Sargent and viewing sketchbooks generates a level of intimacy and engagement with the artist like nothing else I know.

Nevertheless I very much recommend this as an exhibition to see in 2015 by hook or by crook! I'm expecting it to be very popular.

Note: In 2007 I did a blog project about John Singer Sargent. This is a link to all the posts on this blog which reference John Singer Sargent in some way

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