Celebrated artist John Singer Sargent was known for his career as a society portraitist, a fluent shorthand, and a dynamic control of light and shadow. His client list included the crème-de-la-crème of both American and British society figures, garnering him the reputation of "portraitist of the Gilded Age."
Born in 1856, Sargent spent his childhood travelling the world with his parents, from Florence to Rome, Dresden, and later, Paris. It was here in the city of light that the young painter studied art with Charles-Émile-Auguste (also known as Carolus-Duran.) Carolus-Duran was a close friend of Édouard Manet and a portraitist who taught his students to “network widely and pile on the paint.” Sargent became his finest pupil.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends,” ninety of Sargent’s paintings and drawings come to life. Throughout his career, Sargent created portraits of the most influential society figures; writers, artists, actors, dancers, and musicians, many of whom were also close friends. It is these paintings in particular that are distinctly different than those of his clients, in fact they are an exploration of the friendship between Sargent and his subjects.
Left: Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, 1880
Right: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889
“Brilliant works of art and penetrating character studies, these portraits–often highly charged, intimate, witty, idiosyncratic, and experimental–are also records of relationships, influences, aspirations, and allegiances.” – The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Left: Madame X, 1883 Right: Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1892
Madame X was Sargent’s most famous and critiqued painting. Madame Pierre Gautreau was known in Paris for her stark beauty. Sargent painted her in the hopes of enhancing his reputation, and when he did, he showed the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder. The portrait proved to be an enormous ‘scandale.’ Acquiescing to critics and pressure, Sargent repainted the shoulder strap as you see it above; far less provocative, but less controversial.
Group with Parasoles (Siesta), 1904
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885
Sargent’s ability to bring the intricate details to life in each of his portraits is one of the ways he invites you in. What he was able to communicate with his paintbrush was much more than texture, he captured moments.
In this portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley you know the dress is velvet, the shoes are satin, and the carpet is aubusson.
As portraiture of the Gilded Age, John Singer Sargent gained a reputation for painting society figures on both sides of the Atlantic, but some of his most intriguing works are those of his friends.
“Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” is organized by curator Richard Ormond, Elizabeth Kornhauser, and Stephanie L. Herdrich.
In the words of his biographer Stanley Olsen, “He was at home everywhere, and belonged nowhere.”
“Sargent” will be at the MET until October 4th, 2015.
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends
Open 7 days a week.
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028