The Portrait King

| 27 Jul 2015 | 12:23

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the Gilded Age, American expat artist, may be best known for his formal portraits of the one percent. But he had a freer, looser style on display when painting family and friends. Those friends — many of them writers, artists, actors, and musicians — form the core of a dazzling summer show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that casts a spotlight on the artist’s more informal paintings and sketches. These works were typically not commissioned, but tokens of — and tributes to — friendship and, as such, were gifted to his subjects or kept by the artist.

The curators have produced a blockbuster show, with some 90 paintings and drawings on parade, on view through October 4. It is a paean to the creative class, with a healthy helping of high-society thrown in because, after all, this is John Singer Sargent and the rich and influential were his bread and butter — his patrons, his benefactors, the grist for his art.

Scan the walls and be impressed by the company he kept. Literary giants Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Butler Yeats are represented alongside composer Gabriel Fauré, actor Edwin Booth (founder of The Players Club in Gramercy Park), dancer La Carmencita and art world greats Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, William Merritt Chase and Carolus-Duran — the latter Sargent’s mentor and celebrated society portraitist. Sargent went to Paris in 1874 and joined Carolus-Duran’s atelier, quickly becoming his star student. His masterful portrait of his teacher, dated 1879, fittingly kicks off the show, with a seated Carolus-Duran holding his left hand on his thigh and exuding confidence and charisma.

But in a room framed by Carolus-Duran at one end and the provocative “Madame X” at the other, there is a showstopper of another sort at the exhibit’s entrance, featuring one of Sargent’s pet subjects: his friends’ children. “Portraits of Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron” (1881) may not be as well known as “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882), which resides at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and is not part of the current show. But it has an intensity that stops you in your tracks.

The artist’s first formal double portrait, the picture portrays the children of playwright Édouard Pailleron and wife, Marie. It shines a literal light on Marie-Louise, making her and her white, frilly dress the ghostly focus (her brother wears black and recedes in the background). The young girl claimed to have endured 83 sittings for the portrait, a brilliant character study and testament to Sargent’s Impressionistic obsession with light, especially light on fabric and light on white — or “white on white,” in the words of curator Richard Ormond, Sargent’s grand-nephew, at a recent lecture at the Met.

Glide past portraits of the elegantly attired Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, wife of the Chilean consul, and the spectacled Vernon Lee, Sargent’s childhood writer-friend, until you see the commanding, full-length figure of doctor Samuel-Jean Pozzi. The renowned Parisian gynecologist is portrayed here in a crimson-red dressing gown and embroidered slippers (“Dr. Pozzi at Home,” 1881). As Sargent scholar Elaine Kilmurray writes in the catalog, the glamorous Pozzi was “famous for his love affairs,” including one of long standing with actress Sarah Bernhardt. Kilmurray also writes that Pozzi “founded the League of the Rose, a society devoted to the confession and acting out of sexual experiences.” Sargent was clearly cognizant of Pozzi’s inclinations when he composed this red-on-red masterwork, which ironically was influenced by Old Master paintings of ecclesiastical figures.

In 1907, he dispensed with painting oil portraits and switched to charcoal drawings. He completed 600 portraits in this medium — a select few on exhibit here — including a dashing likeness of Yeats in 1908 for the frontispiece of a new volume of poems. He had embraced landscape painting some years earlier, reveling in watercolors and the new freedom they afforded. Using both oils and watercolors, he traveled to Venice, the Alps and southern Europe and experimented with plein air compositions of the kind forged by the Impressionists. Case in point: “The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy” (1907), which portrays American artist Jane de Glehn in the act of painting outdoors, with her artist-husband Wilfrid looking on.

Sargent was a lifelong friend of Monet, but he was often called the heir to Manet because of “his urbanity and feeling for light,” Ormond said in his talk, adding that he gives a “realistic feeling of real people in real space.” He also noted that the painter’s style was “rooted in French Aestheticism ... [he had] a feeling for art for art’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake.”

This exhibit hails from London’s National Portrait Gallery, minus Sargent’s beauteous “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” (1885-86), which couldn’t travel. A preparatory study in oil for this charming tableau of young girls (modeled after the daughters of a friend) lighting paper lanterns in a garden will have to suffice. It does. And then some.