John SINGER SARGENT

Some years ago I went to an exhibition of water colour sketches painted on his travels by (in my opinion) the greatest ever artist produced by these islands – J M W Turner. Although they were just quick impressions produced for the artist’s own pleasure, they captured the essence of each place, and I was interested to note that where I had also visited the location, although over a century had passed, my impression of it was much the same as Turner’s.

Last week I went with my daughter Elisabeth, and John and our grandson William, to an exhibition of watercolours by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, at the Dulwich picture gallery.

These were largely small landscapes (sketches) executed by Sargent at the end of his career when he had had enough of the demands made by sitters wanting their portraits painted, and took himself off, switched to watercolours and did landscapes.

I am a big fan of John Singer Sargent. In any exhibition of portraits, his will stand out in their excellence. He seems to have the knack of creaing a portrait that is a beautiful object in its own right; a reliable likeness of the subject; presumably a reasonably flattering portrayal because the clients liked them; BUT we the wider audience can see that, for example,  despite the youthful prettiness of the sitter, she is a shallow young woman thinking largely of how to satisfy her desire for clothes, jewels, social prominence etc.

The exhibition paintings are not what I expected. They do not have that deceptively fragile appearance of some watercolours which are misty and almost translucent. These are far brighter and deeper in colour than I had imagined. Some of them are unconventional in their presentation, looking at the subject from below or cutting it off where you don’t expect it. The written commentary in the art gallery suggested that the artist was forcing us to look at things differently. However I don’t believe that he was thinking about future audiences at all. I think he was acting entirely to please himself and what attracted him to these particular subjects was their degree of technical difficulty. He, of course, entirely overcame that.

I came across a sketch from his travels, of somewhere in Scotland. The British countryside is so diverse that if you have travelled through the UK extensively you know whether a picture is of Scotland, Yorkshire or Dorset, even if they are all apparently of the same tree. Sargent’s picture of Scotland lacks authenticity. It does not feel of heather and gorse and Atlantic wind. It is just a tree.

I have often wondered if a portrait painter makes a judgement of his sitter or if he just paints what he sees. John got a chalk drawing done of me once in Waverley Market in Edinburgh. I thought I would give the man doing the work the benefit of my wit and charm so having ascertained that if I held my position, conversation would not put him off, I set out to entertain him. I was however considerably taken aback when I asked him what he found most difficult about doing a portrait of someone and he replied: ‘Sometimes it is difficult to avoid being beguiled by the sitter.’ (We were pleased with the result, which is as grave and reflective a representation as I most truly am; but most friends have regarded it as not flattering.)

So, returning to Sargent, I came to the conclusion that his was a technical excellence; he was supremely good at putting paint to canvas in the image of what lay before him. So, in my opinion, John Singer Sargent is still very, very good.

Just not as good as Turner.

PS William is not (yet anyway) an admirer of John Singer Sargent. As soon as we entered the exhibition rooms he began to shout, Bye bye (which is his way of indicating that an interview is at an end,) and his melancholy and irritated cry punctuated our entire visit. Somehow I doubt if he would have been any more impressed by Turner!

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