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