This is one lady I expect to see a lot of over the coming months, along with the other great celebrity fashion portraits on show at Tate Britain in London from February.
Such a visual feast is nothing short of stunning and emphasizes Sargent's foremost place as portrait painter to the rich and famous of his era. I can't wait for the opening of Sargent and Fashion on February 22. If you are fortunate enough to live within travelling distance of Boston, MA, you may have had a chance to see the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts before it closed on January 15.
Sargent and Fashion is organised by Tate Britain and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art. John Singer Sargent (1856-1825) was an American artist born in Florence, Italy. He studied in Paris before moving to London and spent most of his life in Europe.
Sargent is best known for his society portraiture and huge canvasses but was also known for his landscapes and murals. His subjects were often the rich and famous as well as his many friends and family studies. This caused many in the art establishment to sneer at Sargent. The focus of this exhibition, however, is the way in which Sargent was influenced by, and subsequently became an influencer of, high fashion.
Sargent was a favorite artist of my late father’s and I recall an earlier exhibition of the artist’s work at Tate that we saw together. I often look at the Sargent paintings that are part of the Tate permanent collection and remember Dad's keen interest in this artist's work. One of these paintings, a breathtaking and larger than life canvass of the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, is prominent in the new exhibition. Not only is this entrancing painting on show, but it will be mounted alongside a display of the actual costume worn by Terry on stage. This juxtaposition of theatrical costume and in-role painting will allow visitors to compare the magical emerald greens of the stage dress with the more ethereal blues of Sargent’s palette.
To me, Sargent’s mastery of ostentatious coloration is what makes his work stand out from that of his stuffy establishment contemporaries. That and the intimacy of his family and home-set portraiture. There is also much of a gay flamboyance to many of his depictions of society males.
While his female fashion portraits are lavish, sumptuous and luxurious, his men are beautiful to the point of beatification. No self-respecting Victorian dandy could do better than be painted by Sargent. Would that I were able to assume such sartorial splendour.
This is the point I will be looking for in the exhibition. Fashion is determined by a need to aspire to something beyond the mundane and everyday. Those of us who buy our clothes from high-street and online mass market outlets yearn for something beyond our reach. We see it in Vogue or on TV, worn by people inspired by what is in Vogue, literally and figuratively. If I understand the exhibition blurb correctly, Sargent was making what was the in-Vogue fashion statement and aspiration of his era writ large.
Sargent exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery from 1882, and with the New English Art Club, of which he was a founding member, from 1886. He held a one-man exhibition at the St Botolph Club, Boston, Massachusetts in 1888. He exhibited at Knoedler's, New York in 1909 and 1912. He was made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1894, and a full member in 1897. His murals for the Boston Public Library were begun in 1891. He travelled widely in Europe, and visited the Holy Land in 1905-6.
Sargent's international reputation as a portraitist reached its peak in the 1890s and early 1900s, and he painted many of the distinguished personalities of his day, including the actress Dame Ellen Terry (Tate Gallery N02053), the art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family (Tate Gallery N03705-13, T07104), Coventry Patmore and Henry James. Many of his clients were Americans: Roosevelt, Rockefeller, H.G. Marquand, and Lady Randolph Churchill. By 1910 he had given up all but the occasional portrait, devoting himself to landscapes and the murals at Boston. His most important war picture, Gassed (1919), is in the Imperial War Museum, London.
Sargent and Fashion: February 22 to July 7 2024
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Tate or the organisers of the exhibition.
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About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.
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