One of the “must see” exhibitions of 2015 has to be the John Singer Sargent, Portraits of Artists and Friends show at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It is accompanied by a terrific new book by Richard Ormond who is the co-author (with Elaine Kilmurray) of the Complete Paintings of his great-uncle, John Singer Sargent.
In many ways, for an artist like myself, this new book is one of the best by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray as it contains full size plates of many of the paintings featured in the exhibition and a few of Sargent’s more well known works like Lady Agnew. The book is available from the National Portrait Gallery Shop for £35 (extremely good value) or you can buy it online from Amazon.
The advantage of the larger plates is that you get a closer view of the amazing brush marks and texture that Sargent used to such great effect.
What is apparent in this exhibition is just how Sargent appears to be even more relaxed and confident in the company of those close friends who were celebrities in their own right. Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Antonio Manchini are amongst the cast of artists. Also included are the well known writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James together with a number of famous singers, musicians, dancers and actresses.
Although these portraits can be seen as informal on one level, they also show just how creative Sargent was at getting his subject to sit for him. For example, I find his portrait of his mentor Carolus-Duran utterly engaging. I flit between seeing myself as the one being challenged to paint Sargent’s Parisian master. Or being tutored by Sargent himself, with him watching my tentative efforts at the easel. Finally I stand back as a bystander, watching the intimacy of the young Sargent in full concentration, considering each brush stroke, then wiping it away to replace it with a stroke executed with even greater authority.
The poses themselves are very well considered in terms of composition, lighting, movement and mood, helping us to enter into Sargent’s personal world and to connect with his friends. He woos us with his virtuosity and skill with the brush. His draughtsmanship and use of colour is both breathtaking and full of life. Sargent gives us a privileged insight into his world and creates within us a hunger to discover more.
I went to exhibition in March, armed with my moleskine sketchbook and an array of charcoal pencils. I managed to draw 8 of the portraits on display which was pure fun, particularly later on in the afternoon when the crowds began to thin out and I was able to get much closer to the paintings.
The exhibition continues until 25th May 2015. Go to the National Portrait Gallery website to book your tickets.
Some of the links on this post are affiliate links including the book “Sargent, Portraits of Artists and Friends” available from Amazon. If you click on the links and buy the books then I will receive a small percentage of the sale from Amazon at no extra cost to yourself.