.I think of John Singer Sargent as the masterful “Court Painter” for wealthy and powerful individuals during the Edwardian era; highly sought after, he was commissioned to create grand portraits that served to express and support social position.
NOT as an inspiration for ‘The Shining’…
And yet the relationship of the figures, both to themselves within each image, and to the person viewing the images above, bear striking resemblance.
But I get ahead of myself.
Sergeant: Portraits of Artists and Friends (though October 5) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an expansive show of nearly 100 works focusing on Sargent’s more personal work: portraits he created of artist, writers, actors, and musicians, many of whom were close friends – and which are in stark contrast to the well-known and widely celebrated portraits he painted on commission.
Seemingly effortless, the paintings in this exhibition are not necessarily designed to elevate the subjects’ social position, hence he was free to create more adventurous works that are masterful expressions of his feelings about his colleagues and friends using more experimental painting techniques. It is an impressive, idiosyncratic and truly spectacular show that offers great insight into a master portrait painter.
But to my great surprise, the Sargent’s paintings brought to mind, for me, numerous other and very disparate artists, and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, many of whom made their work a generation or two later. This, for me, constitutes a thrilling art experience!
In Sergeant’s portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885) there is what was seen as an ‘odd composition’ – and I don’t disagree, however what was more striking and very surprising to me was that in this one painting I saw connections between John Singer Sergeant and Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse and George Seurat!
Stevenson’s wife is laying on a sofa or chaise dressed as Scheherazade – bringing to mind a series of works by Henri Matisse.
A door is open into a mysterious space with glints of light, and like in some of the drawings of his contemporary George Seurat, Sargent created space within the darkness by offering teeny glints of light from the hardware of metal bars used to hold the carpet runner (perhaps a detail only an interior designer would consider!)
More striking perhaps is the stance of Stevenson himself – tall, lean, and in motion – I had seen this very stance at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark in Alberto Giacometti’s’ ‘Walking Man’.
Within the often large paintings are areas of almost complete abstraction, not highly rendered and detailed, but a more modern, masterful application of paint. Enter Robert Ryman.
It came a big surprise to me that I would ‘find’ contemporary minimalist and monochrome painter Robert Ryman within some of Sergeant’s paintings!
With the exception of photography, very little of the artwork I own is representational – or portraiture for that matter — and yet the concept of portraiture is something I think about a lot. Private residential interior design at its best is a form of portraiture, reflecting the values, tastes, point of view and histories of the clients. In this idea, if a number of accomplished designers were to create an interior for the same clients, while they would look different, the clients would still be represented and legible in some form.
It was with great anticipation that I went to see Sergeant: Portraits of Artists and Friends – I did not however imagine such a dynamic art history experience that would reach into the late 20th century.
There are more riches to be found within these works, and I encourage you to see the show yourself before it closes – let me know what you find!
(Here’s the link to the exhibition on the Met’s website for times and dates)