Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery, May 2015

Madame Ramon Subercaseaux sits tilted back away from the piano on whose keys rests her right hand.  Her tilted form creates a diagonal with her head to the right and her train to the left under the keyboard.  A colour contrast forms the other diagonal;  the black of the piano on top of which is a white vase with large black carnations(?). At the bottom of that diagonal is a deep blue carpet on which is a blue and white planter with more red and white carnations.  That diagonal is pinned by the red bloom that Madame Subercaseaux wears as a corsage. What those ‘facts’ do not give you is the extraordinary life which Sargent conveys not only in the face but also in the tilt of the body away from the keyboard and slightly towards the viewer, and the wonderful hands.  Sargent is an astonishing painter of hands;  here, the left clutches the top of the chair on which the sitter is perched, and the right hand rests on the white keys, seeming to both push the piano away and also to hold on.  In his portrait of the surgeon, Pozzi, the doctor’s long fingers are hooked over the cord of a red velvet dressing gown.

Sargent painted Amalia Subercaseaux in her apartment on the Avenue de Bois de Boulogne. The wife of a Chilean diplomat, Madame Subercaseaux was one of Sargent’s many friends among the artistic great and the good. And Sargent was, as well, almost the definition of cosmopolitan. Born in Florence to American parents, his family moved to Paris when Sargent was eighteen. Fluent in French, Italian and German, Sargent moved between France, Britain and America all his life, ‘at home everywhere, belong[ing] nowhere’; and could number Henry James, Claude Monet, Gabriel Faure, Auguste Rodin, and Robert Louis Stevenson amongst his friends and patrons.

Sargent seems almost addicted to bringing others to life on canvas. Snatching an hour with the Italian actress, Eleonora Duse, Sargent captured the hooded eyes, the tilt of the head and the defiant mouth that clearly made her a commanding, haunting presence on stage. The second picture on display in this exhibition is of his mentor Carolus-Duran, whose atelier he entered in that move to Paris. Duran was himself the eminent French portraitist of his day. And Sargent’s portrait is charged with the huge personality that Duran was considered to be. The eyes stare out at the viewer with not a little arrogance. A luxuriant moustache and dark beard cannot hide the full lips which pout slightly. The hands, again, are exquisitely rendered; the right hand is draped over a swagger stick, but the left is bent over on to the back of the hand, the fingers turned away from the body, in a way which necessitates the body to tilt, again, towards the viewer’s left. Sargent makes the hands, mouth and eyes triangulate somehow;  the more so as the jacket in an exquisite lime-green velvet is rendered sfumato.  That slab of green might have dominated the centre of the painting, but Sargent’s genius is, by blurring the jacket slightly, to withhold it even as its textures and folds are lovingly done.

Elsewhere, Sargent shows an extraordinary eye for jewellery and its effects.  His portrait of Madame Edouard Pailleron (the patronym is decorously used for all Sargent’s married female sitters) shows a pale, slim red-haired woman with small eyes and a small mouth, in a black dress against the background of her leaf-strewn lawn.  Here, the earrings and engagement ring are tiny ornaments whose detail blazes out of the overall picture. As do the brooch and torque bracelet on Madame Pailleron’s young daughter, Marie-Louise.  She is portrayed on a chaise-longue with her older brother, Edouard, sitting to her left, turning toward the viewer.  However, it is the girl, four-square, her stare confronting the viewer, seeming almost on the point of rising towards us, who dominates the picture. Some have seen this as a model for the brother and sister in James’ The Turn of the Screw, and the word ‘knowing’ does not do justice to the gaze of either brother and sister.

The later Sargent turned against portraiture, and the later pictures in this exhibition are often of friends in the open air, some of them his fellow painters at work. There is Sargent’s possibly best known painting, ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’; the study of two girls lighting paper lanterns.  The girl’s white dresses are picked out against the purples, pink and mauves of bluebells and roses.  Yellow candle light surges out of the lanterns and onto the two girl’s faces; although the lilies, which dominate the top of the picture, hang almost lasciviously above them. And then there is the final masterpiece;  his portrait of Henry James, showing the Master as he must surely have been, enigmatic, searching, charismatic.

Ultimately, what Singer Sargent seems to do is to challenge us to be more mature, to be, somehow, more adult, to see each other as we really are.

Ian Pople

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