Sargent and his Friends

Dr PozziI already knew Sargent painted sublimely, and would have been probably my top choice as a portraitist had I been living in the Edwardian age.  But ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ is just as interesting in elucidating the sitters as the artist.  The National Portrait Gallery exhibition brings alive a whole society of late Victorian and Edwardian artists, poets, writers, actors and intellectuals, their vivid personalities and characteristic expressions captured in Sargent’s luscious and fluid brushstrokes.

Dr. Pozzi (1881, right), the ‘father of modern French gynaecology’, stands full length in a scarlet dressing gown like a Renaissance prince or cardinal.

NPG 1767; Henry James by John Singer SargentHenry James (1913, left), a close friend of Sargent and a fellow American expat, is portrayed on his 70th birthday, a successful novelist who is yet contemplative and somewhat inscrutable.

In contrast, the portrait of the poet Coventry Patmore (1894, below right) depicts a sprightly, energetic, and fiercely intelligent old man, standing braced with a witty observation or acerbic comment on his lips.

NPG 1079; Coventry Kersey Deighton Patmore by John Singer Sargent

Robert Louis Stevenson is captured at home in two small and enigmatic portraits, one interesting composition featuring him, gaunt yet vigorous, striding across the low ceilinged room, his wife sitting incongruously doll-like in the background, the other displaying his long frame and expressive hands, arranged in a wicker chair as if in the midst of meditative conversation (1887, below).

Robert Louis Stevenson 1887

Vernon Lee (or Violet Paget, 1881, below right) was a woman of letters, feminist and pacifist – and a childhood friend of Sargent’s whom he portrays with tenderness and insight.  The rapid brushstrokes suggest that she has just turned with lips parted as she engages in debate or badinage with her hosts, her eyes behind wire spectacles shining with intelligence and passion.

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925W. Graham Robertson (1894, below left) epitomises the youthful dandy of the fin-de-siecle with his Chesterfield coat and elegant cane; the slim pale boy with his worldly pose would become a well-known illustrator and stage and costume designer, and later a playwright. Sargent depicts him in the muted grey-toned harmonies of Whistler.

W. Graham Robertson

The exhibition follows a chronological path to a certain extent, and mid-way through presents a roomful of personalities with whom Sargent lived in Broadway, Worcestershire, from 1885-1889.  Here, the Tate’s famously ethereal Chinese-lantern lit nocturne ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-6) is placed in context; the girls were modelled on Polly and Dorothy Barnard, the daughters of one of the Broadway artists, Frederick Barnard, whose wife is also depicted here in a more traditional portrait format.

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There are two interior scenes in this gallery that also stand apart from the portrait genre.  One depicts the Besnard family celebrating a child’s birthday; the other is ‘Le Verre de Porto’ (1884, right) which shows Sargent’s hostess in Sussex, Edith Vickers, as if captured unaware in a moment of reverie.  It is a scene more akin to Sickert with its low artificial lighting, domestic setting and sense of an unspoken private narrative – the cropping of her husband’s figure at the extreme right of the painting being another Sickertian trope, though one introduced by Impressionist painters such as Degas who were influenced by the recently available Japanese print.

Group with Parasols c.1904-5

At the far end of the exhibition, beyond the impressive array of portraits from the London, New York and Boston years of the  1890s and 1900s, is a small gallery of paintings made on European travels during these years which again show an alternative approach to the formal portrait.  ‘Group with Parasols’ (c.1904-5, left) is one of a series of ‘Siesta’ pictures that Sargent painted on a trip to the Italian Alps, in which four sleeping figures are almost indistinguishable from each other and the verdant pasture, precedence given to the effects of dappled sunlight and rhythmic composition – a loose, Impressionist style technique that was still extremely radical to British audiences.

The Fountain 1907

‘The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati’ (1907, right) captures the artist Jane de Glehn painting, with her husband Wilfrid lounging beside her on the balustrade surrounding a fountain.  Like the Broadway interiors, this composition looks beyond simple portraiture to introduce a narrative element – that of the relationship between the Jane and Wilfrid – while also acting as a record of place and time, culture and mores, more completely than an individual portrait ever can.

Combining an artistic retrospective with what almost amounts to a visual biography of the artist, ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ is fascinating, informative and full of character – an exhibition model that I hope the NPG will repeat.

First World War Portraits

This compact little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an ideal reintroduction to some of the protagonists of the First World War.  First there are the monarchs: the Tsar, the Kaiser, the Emperor, and King George V with their stately mien, flashes of gold and military accoutrements – accompanied by a small and pathetic photograph of the young Serb who brought three of them down.

Orpen Haig

Next door there are the military leaders (Haig above, Foch below right) – most, it seems, dragged out of semi-retirement.  William Orpen was chosen to immortalise them, his flattering impressionistic style making them appear distinguished yet human, the honours pinned to their uniform the only flash of bright colour. Orpen is an often forgotten name in British art; it is good to see here how he earned his once impressive reputation.

Ferdinand_Foch_(par_William_Orpen)

Accompanying the leaders are a few selected pictures of the ‘ordinary soldier’ – one also by Orpen, the Grenadier Guardsman facing his superiors alike in stance, from a canvas of equal size.  Others show Tommies in action in the trenches: crouched below the tangle of barbed wire firing a machine gun in C.R.W. Nevinson’s angular, futurist style ‘La Mitrailleuse’ – and the aftermath in ‘The Dead Stretcher-Bearer’ by Gilbert Rogers (below). In the central display cabinet these glorified or explicit portraits are countered by postcards of these same figures that were widely produced and disseminated, small, disposable or collectable – and back in 1914-18 not confined to the rarefied halls of the gallery.

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Churchill portrait by William Orpen 1916Through the entryway into the large final space one is confronted by Orpen’s 1916 life-size three-quarter length portrait of a very gloomy Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had just suffered the ignominy of the defeat at Gallipoli, for which he was consequently forced to resign from government. It is more powerful than any of the satisfied elderly ‘hero of the nation’ portraits that followed, and works here to conjure up exactly the feeling of tense uncertainty that every man in power must have felt as each offensive increased the vast list of the dead and the position returned again to stalemate.

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At the far end of the room entitled, melodramatically, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’ there is a wall of digitised photographs of a diverse selection of participants in the war, from Mata Hari and Wilfred Owen to the first black officer in the British Army. On the right of this are portraits of a number of ‘heroes’ of the war, whose personal stories of bravery are fascinating to read; on the left are some pictures by official war artists of the actual conditions facing the unlucky casualties of trench warfare, such as Eric Kennington’s ‘Gassed and Wounded’ (above). There is also a small and graphic display of Henry Tonks’ – now well-documented, but until recently not available to public view – pastel portraits of plastic surgery patients alongside the medical photographs showing the progress of the treatment.

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In contrast to the documentary realism of such official British war art, the curator has inserted a few German Expressionist paintings inspired by the conflict which show how the chaotic situation in Germany conversely encouraged radical modernism to flourish. Kirchner’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier’ (above), all jagged forms and intense, nauseating colour, places the war in the context of a disillusioned and decadent Berlin. It is an interesting juxtaposition to end on: Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ (below) stands at the entrance/exit, a forceful statement of a pre-war modernism that was quenched – the robotic sculpture literally amputated – by the allied reaction to the horror of the first mechanised war.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959