John Singer Sargent - Exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery

by Maritravel

This Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a collection of portraits of artists and friends by the man regarded as the best portrait artist of his century, Sargent.

Home to the largest collection of portraits in the world, over 115,000 at the last count, the National Portrait Gallery is located in the heart of the West End of London.

The John Singer Sargent exhibition is one of two exhibitions currently on display at the Gallery (the other is Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions), a superb display of the master's work in the portrait field, showing actors, writers, performers and other painters as we've never seen them before.

To illustrate the range of the work shown at the Gallery we need only contrast the current exhibitions with the forthcoming exhibition in June entitled 'Audrey Hepburn: Portrait of an Icon', to see just how diverse this range is..

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy
The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascat...
Narional Portrait Gallery

Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

John Singer Sargent

The exhibition, Portraits of Artists and Friends of John Singer Sargent, the great 18th – 19th-century portrait painter, sits very well in the area devoted to it in the National Portrait Gallery. The artist, who lived a very social life, was closely connected to many of the leading cultural figures of the day, writers, actors, musicians and poets and he painted these friends throughout hi life.  Few of these portraits were commissioned and for this reason they are more intimate than would have been possible in a formal commissioned portrait and somewhat radical for the time.

Born in Europe of American parents in 1856, Sargent in 1881 was considered behind the times by the movers and shakers in the art world.  He failed to embrace cubism and although he was au fait with impressionism and painted his friend Claude Monet at work, his real genius lay in the way he combined the brushwork he learned from the Impressionists with a psychological insight into the sitter.

This is a major exhibition of over 70 portraits and it spans Sargent’s time in London, Paris, Boston, and New York, many of them on loan from galleries and private collections in Europe and America.  They may never be seen all together again so this is a rare chance to discover this great portraitist’s most personal and intimate portraits of those he called friends.


Portraits of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron
Portraits of Edouard and Marie-Louise...
National Portrait Gallery

Monet, Rodin, Gosse, Henry James and many more

Among the many friends sketched and painted by him, and now seen in this exhibition are, William B. Yeats, poet, Henry James, writer, Auguste Rodin, sculptor, Claude Monet, impressionist painter, William Booth, actor, and Robert Louis Stevenson, writer. 

The oil on canvas c. 1887 portrait of Claude Monet (1840-1926) in the exhibition was presented to the National Academy of Design in 1897 as his diploma work.  Sargent had been collecting Monet’s works since 1887 and it is generally assumed that this portrait was painted at Giverny, France, during the summer of that year when he and their mutual friend August Rodin visited Monet.

One of the most striking pictures in the exhibition is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose an oil on canvas dated 1885-6.  In 1885 he saw what he described as ‘a paradisiac sight’ while on a boating trip on the Thames – two little girls lighting paper lanterns at dusk in the rose garden.  The painting you see here is the result of that vision and the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition points out that it is unusual in that it incorporates several aesthetics, French Impressionism, English Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism while the flower imagery references the paintings of the Italian Renaissance.

The literary historian, translator and critic Edmund Gosse was also painted and his portrait is displayed here but it is his portraits of Robert Louise Stevenson that are most striking.  Sargent knew Stevenson in his early years in Paris but the two  portraits on view here were painted in Stevenson’s house in Bournemouth, Dorset and show him in what is said to be a characteristic manner, striding across the middle of his living room and talking.  This was done in 1885 when Treasure Island had made him a success

La Carmencita
La Carmencita
National Portrait Gallery

La Carmencita, Edwin Booth and Ellen Terry


It is said that Sargent first encountered the wild Spanish singer known as La Carmencita at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris just before she took New York by storm in 1890.  It is one of my favourites and I am indebted to the Gallery for giving me permission to reprint it here.  The face of La Carmencity is rendered white and mask-like, like several of hi models of the time, and this sets off her rich black hair and the dazzling gown.  The painting was acquired by the French state for presentation to the Muséé du Luxembourg at the time.

The great Edwin Booth was painted for a series of American theatre portraits, sitting for this in 1890.  Apparently he told a friend later that he was disappointed with the likeness and when Sargent heard this he painted out the head and began a new picture.  The finished portrait is now regarded as one of his greatest creations.

Another great theatrical who portrait is on display is the great Ellen Terry shown here in a dramatic scene as Lady Macbeth placing the crown upon her head.  Nor were Italian actresses neglected for there is a delightful portrait of Eleonora Duse, who found international stardom before coming to London with her own company where Sargent saw her on her opening night.

Further Information


So many great works to see, so many connections to make between the friends who moved easily from one artistic circle to another.  The exhibition deserves more than one visit but there are also many events, lectures, workshops that one can attend, many of them free.

As well as the exhibition, there is an excellent basement cafeteria and a truly good shop on site selling more than just erasers and pencils!  

Further Information:   Entrance £14. 50 (concessions £13)

National Portrait Gallery Exhibition:  Sargent - Portraits of Artists and Friends.

Telephone:  +44 (0)207766 7344

Further reading: The Catalogue.  Sargent by curator Richard Ormond and contributors £35.

Updated: 04/19/2015, Maritravel
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Mira on 04/19/2015

I, too, buy postcards when I visit museums. I sometimes look at them. I also like fridge magnets with artworks. I used to put my postcards in photo albums, but had to crop them because they were too large.

maritravel on 04/19/2015

Thanks, Mira.

I am still thinking about some of the paintings and sketches I saw, thanks to the postcards I bought (although I always tell myself not to buy these as they eventually end up in a drawer). It really was wonderful. The entrance fee was £14.50 though (concessions £13) and not £35. It was the hardbacked, glossy catalogue that was £35. I bought the cheaper one at £10. Obviously I didn't make this clear enough in my article so will go into it now and correct that.
I'm glad you brought this up.

Mira on 04/19/2015

Nice expo but 35 pounds? That's incredible. Still, I would have forked them out just as you did. I enjoyed your article.

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