Met Brings Huge John Singer Sargent Show Over, With Striking Theme

Revealing How Creatively He Portrayed Famous Friends

Endless Display of Genius Stimulated by Personal Admiration

Freedom to Invent After Abandoning Formality

If you appreciate the finest painting from the past and are stuck in Manhattan over the July 4 weekend, consider yourself blessed. Walk over to the Metropolitan Museum and view the outstanding show it will offer the public for three months from tomorrow (Tue Jun 30 to October 4 2015) of the great turn of the 20th Century portraitist John Singer Sargent, which it has brought over from the National Portrait Gallery in London and topped off with with some additional works.

This Sargent sketch in charcoal of W B Yeats, recognized as Ireland's finest poet at the age of forty, shows all the inspiration that Sargent found in his friends among distinguished contemporaries in the arts.  The Met show has a huge abundance of examples in its new show Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

This Sargent sketch in charcoal of W B Yeats, recognized as Ireland’s finest poet at the age of forty, shows all the inspiration that Sargent found in his friends among distinguished contemporaries in the arts. The Met show has a huge abundance of examples in its new show Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

Singer’s shining talent in portraiture was fully developed from the start of his career but this exhibition has a striking theme – it shows vividly how much inspiration Sargent (1856-1925) found in portraying his friends from the theater, art, music and literature of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, many of them equal in stature to Sargent himself.

The very fine portrait of Henry James with its penetrating gaze and vivid presence reflects the long friendship and mutual admiration between artist and subject

Above for example is his charcoal sketch of Yeats, a good looking forty year old in 1908, done six years after Sargent gave up painting formal portraits of stuffed shirt ladies and gentlemen as too confining. Yeats was pleased with the dashing air of the sketch, which was used for the frontispiece of his first volume of Collected Poems that year, and noted that Sargent was “very good company”.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood was sketched in 1885 but kept and treasured by Sargent all his life, possibly reflecting the truth that it is a self-portrait in part, as many of his studies of friends who were artists share that character.

Many of the paintings are partly self portraits in spirit which refer to Sargent’s own methods and approach.

An Artist in His Studio (Ambrogio Raffele) shows the various stages of work on a finished painting.

Sargent’s self portrait is reckoned as more buttoned up and less revealing of himself than his pictures of other artists and musicians (Sargent was reportedly a concert-level amateur pianist.)

Sargent’s Self Portrait of 1906, at the age of fifty, is said to be less revealing that the studies he did of his celebrated friends among actors, writers and musicians of his time.

Every work in this historic assemblage reminds us just how extraordinarily gifted was this chronicler of major Victorian and Edwardian contemporaries, and the experience of walking into the vast main gallery that starts the exhibition off with his earlier portraits in the grand manner is a little like walking into the anterooms of heaven.

Garden Study of the Vickers Children John Singer Sargent (American, Florence 1856 – 1925 London) Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884 Oil on canvas 54 – 3/16 × 36 in. (137.6 × 91.4 cm) Flint Institute of Arts

The show offers a chance to contemplate the beauty of his Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884), a daring and sensual masterpiece which so scandalized the Parisian bourgeoisie at the 1884 Salon with its plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and off-the-shoulder dress strap that French commissions dried up (even though he put back the strap) and Sargent moved to London. The magnificent work occupied pride of place in his studio until Gautreau’s death in 1916 when he sold it to the Metropolitan.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) shocked the Paris provincials in 1884 but has long been recognized as “the precise image of a modern woman scrupulously drawn by a painter who is a master of his art”, as Judith Gautier, Sargent’s fellow Parisienne poet and novelist put it. (Click the image more than once to examine it in detail).

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