Saturday, 14 February 2015

'Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends' at the National Portrait Gallery

The new exhibition of paintings by John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery opened on Thursday and I was there on the opening day. I think this is going to be a busy exhibition judging from the level of interest on Thursday. When you go in you get a small booklet with a one page description and background to every painting which is a great idea since most of these paintings are about people and we all like to know about the people in paintings.

Outside the Gallery on a big banner is Dr Pozzi in his lovely red dressing gown - I hope he's not too cold being outside in this weather. He's very on trend with his hipster beard and carefully combed hair. What you see when you look at the painting in the exhibition is that he's wearing glorious slippers (slippers that I want). He is clearly a man of taste and style and the way he's got his fingers tucked into the belt of his dressing gown indicates that he knows how to pose as well. A man of elegance.

It quickly became obvious that what Sargent does well is faces. These are not random people in the paintings, they are specific and real, each looking very different and individual. The portrait titled 'Vernon Lee', the pen name of Violet Paget, a childhood friend of Sargent's who grew up to be a feminist writer. I love the frames of her glasses and the grazes on one of the lenses, her chapped lips and hair not combed, her bright eyes looking at something on the other side of the room - all of this gives a feeling of intimacy and immediacy. It's the face that does it, that tells the story.

There are lots of portraits here, some just head and shoulders and others are full body.  Some have a very odd composition which I assume is Mr Sargent playing with our sensibilities and experimenting in his own way.

Another favourite portrait was one of Robert Louis Stevenson. Sargent did three portraits of Mr Stevenson and two of them are here (the third was destroyed). Stevenson was the author of 'Treasure Island' and 'Kidnapped' and these portraits were painted while his star was rising. They're very brown and Stevenson seems to like wearing flares but I don't care since he created the best pirate story ever and gave us the ultimate adventure yarn. He also seems to like very fluffy and furry carpets and that can't be bad either.

Not all portraits are full face from the front and Sargent liked painting his painter friends. There are two paintings of Ambrogio Raffele in the exhibition and this one shows him in his 'studio', also known as his bedroom in a hotel on a Swiss alpine painting holiday. It's interesting since Sargent is almost looking over his shoulder in the privacy of his bedroom and we see the painting he's working on and his unmade bed. It's hardly luxury but it is real. Raffele is sitting back and looking at his painting - does he like it? is it finished? or might he even scrap it? Who knows?

Sargent also painted his painter friends on their painting trips in groups and I really like this one called 'Group With Parasols'. Painting obviously takes it out of you and they all need a nap. Where does one person end and where does the next begin. A heap of artists in dappled sunlight.

Some of the later portraits were a bit dull - grey men in grey frock coats, stick thin and old, usually with whiskers. They look rather corporate and boring and maybe that's what Sargent is telling us.

And then you come across an over the top portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth in all her shocking majesty. An elongated body and holding the crown of Scotland over her head (which isn't a scene in the play) that just shrieks 'look at me'. The thick cloth of the costume and the long red wig against her pale skin make this terribly dramatic. The moment before she crowns herself as Queen of Scotland. It's a large painting, more than human sized, and is rather over-powering.

A final painting I want to mention is 'The Fountain, Villa Torlonia' from 1907. The dappled sunlight on their clothes, the fountain and greenery in the background and the languid gentleman beside the lady painter. What is she painting? I want to know.

The languid gentleman has his fingers tucked into his belt just like Dr Pozzi in his red dressing gown, a sign of relaxing perhaps. He's leaning back and gazing at the painting being created. The painter is far more focused, looking at her subject and transferring the vision through her paintbrush while the world goes on around her depicted by the fountain's continuous gushing. And it will continue long after you've packed your bags and paintings and left Italy for home. But what a lovely painting.

So there you have it, Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. And there are so many more paintings to see, such as a lovely drawing of Harley Granville-Baker looking very dapper, a silhouette of Monet and a brutal full frontal face for Rodin. Different styles and different medium, different shapes and sizes. This exhibition is well worth seeing and I'm really pleased to have seen it on its first day. That means there's plenty of time to see it again later.

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