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Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

19 February 2015 | Laura Stevens

Famous portrait painter, John Sargent, is the focus of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is certainly a man you would want to count as one of your friends after seeing this exhibition. Sargent: Portrait of Artists and Friends gathers an intimate set of paintings that Sargent made of his acquaintances, both personal and professional. And what a peer group he had! Sargent’s contact book was certainly one to be envied with portraits of W.B.Yeats, Ellen Terry and Henry James being shown at the National Portrait Gallery.

Curator, Richard Ormond CBE, was inspired to set up this exhibition by the immediacy of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885), which captures Stevenson mid moustache twirl. For Ormond, Sargent has a wonderful ability to “always get to the heart of things”. Whether that be the fin-de-siècle spirit in W.Graham Robertson (1894)orthe intensity of the child in Portraits De M.E.P... Et De Mlle L.P. (1881). Ormond’s declaration that he “brings them to life” is repeatedly depicted in this major exhibition of works by one of the world’s most celebrated portrait painters.

As the portraits are all of his friends and contemporaries, Sargent is able to experiment more with his style of work. Rather than stiff, formal poses the works often capture his friends doing what they love – singing, acting or playing. Ormond has curated this exhibition “to challenge the conventional view of Sargent.”

“Sargent’s enthusiasms were all for things new and exciting. He was a fearless advocate of the work of younger artists.”

A whole section of the exhibition focuses on Sargent’s work on actors and actresses with Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) being a dramatically familiar piece of work. The ferocity of Terry lifting the crown triumphantly in her green gown is sure to draw a viewer’s eye. Another familiar piece of work will be Sargent’s masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6). Picturing two small girls in white lighting paper lanterns at dusk in a garden planted with roses, this is a beautifully elegant portrait.

Gathering works from across the globe, both public and private collections, this exhibition takes on an international dimension. To catch a glimpse of the artist behind his professional persona, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends offers an unique opportunity.

For more information go to the National Portrait's Gallery website.

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