Thursday, February 12, 2015

10 great reasons to see 'Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends' at the NPG

Book now to see the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - it's going to be a blockbuster! It opens today and continues until 25 May 2015

In my view this is up there with the very top exhibitions I've ever seen at the National Portrait Gallery.

Importantly for American readers, this is also an exhibition which will be seen in the USA.

The exhibition has been developed in a major collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum in New York together with prominent museums all over the world.

Consequently the Sargent exhibition travels to New York and opens at the Met. Museum on 30th June and continues until 4th October 2015. It's evident from the catalogue that the paintings won't be exactly the same - but a lot of them will be.

I viewed the exhibition twice yesterday - and much preferred the beginning and end of the morning preview when there were not a lot of people around compared to the afternoon preview for Friends which was absolutely heaving with people!

My main recommendations are:
  • Do go and see it - you won't regret it if you enjoy painting and portraiture
  • Book a ticket fast if you want a choice of dates - this one is going to be very popular and I understand admissions will be time slotted to maintain some control over numbers in the gallery.
  • if you live in London try and visit on a Monday morning (the least busy) or at least in the morning just after the gallery opens
  • if you live outside London try and avoid weekends which I expect will be the time the exhibition will get the most visitors.
Sargent self-portrait plus paintings of fellow artists and friends
left to right
Dennis Miller Bunker painting at Calcot (1888)
- with Sargent's younger sister Violet sitting sketching on the river bank
Claude Monet, painting at the edge of a wood (c.1885) - Monet and Sargent became good friends
An Out of Doors Study (1889) Sargent's friend Paul Hellau and his young wife Alice
Self Portrait (1886) - part of the Alexander MacDonald collection at Aberdeen art Gallery

Reasons to see this exhibition

Links in the paintings below are to where the painting can be seen online.

Here are some reasons to go and see the Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

  • This is the intimate side of Sargent - when he is largely painting - and drawing - for himself. While it includes some commissioned portraits of patrons, the paintings are very largely of his family, friends and people who are important to him in the cultural milieu in which he mixed. Hence what you see in this exhibition are very many paintings which have an inscription at the top addressed to the individual who is the subject of the painting. It reminded me of Lucian Freud's and Hockney's predeliction for painting people important to them rather than for commission. 
  • All those who think that think the zenith of portraiture is an ability to make a portrait look like a photograph should go and see this exhibition. What is truly stunning and exciting is to see the ability of an artist to demonstrate both amazing control over edges and tonal values and at the same time exhibit fabulous dexterity using all the marks a brush can make.
  • This is an exhibition with some amazing loans. It's one of the best ever exhibitions I've seen at the NPG. In fact, my jaw dropped three times as I went through the exhibition as I saw the paintings secured for the exhibition - and the fact these were hung together. 
The heat of the day is expressed in the very shadows and the attitude of every limb speaks of the sensuous enjoyment of complete rest in the open air. Here again we are confronted by complete masteryThe reviewer in the Pall Mall gazette 25 June 1906 - referring to Group with Parasols
Three oil paintings by John Singer Sargent in the final room
from left to right
An Artist in his Studio (1904) - this is a portrait of the Italian painter Amborgio Raffaele
who painted landscapes and figures in a style not unlike Sargent
Group with Parasols (1904-5)
- this painting is in a private collection and was originally exhibited at
the NEAC Annual Exhibition in 1906 where it created a sensation!
None of the online versions replicate the colour in the original.
The Master and his Pupils (1914)
I think if there were one painting I wanted to steal for my own wall it would be this one.
Sargent had painted the group with a degree of artifice. First he painted the painter (Adrian Stokes)
and then got Stokes's wife's servant to dress up in different clothes to create the students.

  • If you've ever looked at reproductions of Sargent plein air paintings in text books go to this exhibition and be prepared to be blown away by how much more impressive the paintings are when seen up close
Bringing together remarkable loans, some rarely exhibited, from galleries and private collections in Europe and America, the exhibition will follow Sargent’s time in Paris, London, Boston and New York as well as his travels in the Italian and English countryside. Musée Rodin, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Musée d’Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are amongst the institutions that are lending works.
The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascaty, Italy (Wilfred and Jane de Glehn)
by John Singer Sargent (1907) 
According to Jane, Sargent made him assume a contemptuous expression to avoid the picture resembling a sunlit idyll aboard a P&O liner John Singer Sargent - Painting Friends
  • This is an artist who paints the most fabulous hands.  I'd never noticed this before - but one I had every one I looked at was remarkable.  It's worth going just to see how much more interesting hands are in the hands of Sargent!
Three paintings of Artists and Friends by John Singer Sargent in the 'France' Roomfrom left to right
Carolus Duran (1879) - his tutor and mentor - check out the inscription at the top of the painting
Louis de Fourcaud (1884) - an influential figure in Parisian cultural life
Edouard Pailleron (1879) - one of Sargent's earliest French Patrons
  • He's a brilliant painter of children and there are two significant portraits included in the exhibition which demonstrate this
Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881
  • It's curated by Sargent's great nephew Richard Ormond CBE, co-author of the several volums of the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné and former Deputy Director of the NPG. The plans for the exhibition started five years ago and undoubtedly this exhibition has benefited from the very many contacts Ormond has developed over the years in documenting the catalogue raisonné. It was a delight to meet and talk with him yesterday.
Richard Ormond being interviewed this morning
  • the exhibition includes a very small sample of Sargent's great charcoal drawings. After he gave up formal portraiture in 1907, sargent continued to make charcoal drawings of which there are some 600. I learned from Richard Ormond yesterday that he is half way through the latest volume of the catalogue raisonné which will be wholly devoted to these 600 charcoal drawings. Mt favourite was one of Gabriel Faure and Mrs Patrick Campbell looking over his shoulder.
Three of the six charcoal drawings displayed in the exhibition
  • I like the way they've organised the space and hung the exhibition - it's very large and very open. In fact it's taken over a great deal of the main floor where the permanent collection of contemporary portraits are shown. This means there are no pinch points and it should be a lot easier to navigate when there's a lot of people in the exhibition. The different periods of his life in terms have varied backgrounds in terms of light and dark walls. The more formal portraits - around the height of his portrait painting career - are hung against a very dark background and look very good. The paintings of artists painting plein air have much lighter backgrounds and give a more relaxed ambience commensurate with their context.
  • The exhibition is also beautifully lit so that the paintings are well illuminated without too much sheen or reflection.  All too often I go to exhibitions and find myself irritated with the lighting which works for the most part but then fails badly in parts. In this exhibition I enjoyed the portraits because they are well lit and only afterwards realised how much of my enjoyment was due to the excellent lighting
Sandy Nairne, Director of the NPG, introducing the exhibition - and the sponsorsSandy retires at the end of this month.
In the middle of the exhibition there is a space usually used for the exhibition shop which this time is doing duty as a place to provide a chronological timeline of his life - and a place to sit down!

The John Singer Sargent Timeline
This includes lots of photographs of Sargent from a young child through to senior years
plus photos of his studios in Tite Street and Fulham

Details of the exhibition

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends
  • 12 February - 25 May 2015, at the National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Tickets: Adults £14.50 / Concessions (seniors, children aged 12-18, students) £13.00
  • moves to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for the summer


  • Sponsored by Close Brothers
  • Made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art
  • With the generous support of the Blavatnik Family Foundation
  • Supported by the American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Sargent Exhibition Supporters Group
  • The National Portrait Gallery’s Spring Season 2015 sponsored by Herbert Smith Freehills LLP


1 comment:

  1. I have long admired the way Sargent painted hands, expressive and never too obvious. I'm glad to see you feel that way too. I only wish the show were going to LA. , as I'd move heaven and earth to experience it. Thanks for letting us 'view ' it vicariously.


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