John Singer Sargant: Power of the Portrait

by Alexandra Epps

We invited members to join us from Rugby, Coventry, Sutton Coldfield the East Midlands and Wokingham branches as this was a bonus lecture we hosted for our members.

 Sargent devoted his life to the portrayal of beauty and Alexandra chose to explore only his portraits of women.  Although born in America in 1856 he experienced an itinerant lifestyle as a child eventually training in Paris with the young French portrait artist Carolus Duran. He was obsessed with and influenced by Velasquez. He was taught to draw with his paintbrush, showing light and dark straight away, there was no under-painting. His painting of Duran when Sargent was only twenty three eclipsed anything that Duran had done himself and gave Sargent the freedom to enter his pictures at exhibitions. He became a sought-after portrait painter. His portrait of Madame Edouard Pailleron, a friend, in 1879 showed a new way of painting a portrait, as it is set outside in the country estate owned by her family. He used light and bright background to push her figure forward, with the subject wearing a tea gown with her petticoat showing!  His 1882 portrait entitled “Lady with a Rose” of Charlotte Burckhardt is on a plain background which defines her silhouette. Her hand fits into her waist with the thumb backwards and the way he has painted the transparency of the lace together with the strong light playing on her dress, captures the theatricality of the moment.

 He travelled to both Spain and Florence to hone his craft and continued to be successful until he painted a young socialite, Madame X, in Paris with a tiara and a dark dress. Unfortunately, he depicted one of the jewelled dress straps as slipping down her arm! This was considered so scandalous that there was a wave of hostility against him and this so unnerved him that he decamped and eventually ended up in Broadway! It became an idyllic spot for the artists’ colony which thrived there with such people as Henry James and Frederick Barnard.

At Farnham House in Broadway he painted “Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose” which depicts a simple garden which has turned into a magical place with girls in white dresses and lanterns. It shows more than the beauty of light as it seems to depict the passing of time.

 Many other wonderful female portraits were shown including those of sisters such as the Wyndham sisters and also single portraits of ladies such as Mrs. Waldorf Astor and the iconic painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth wearing a green dress seemingly adorned with emeralds.