John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery


For sheer painterly pleasure, Nige says you can’t do better than visit the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, running until 25 May…

To the National Portrait Gallery for the John Singer Sargent exhibition, Portraits of Artists and Friends, which is, unsurprisingly, brilliant.

Such dash, such effortless technical mastery, such dazzling brushwork, such living likenesses – what more could you ask? Well, it’s hard to say, but as so often with Sargent, after the initial impact, there’s a sense of something missing – it’s nothing essential but its lack means that enjoying his paintings is not one of the deeper, most satisfying or lasting pleasures that art has to offer. But so what? Pleasure it surely is, an intense and delicious pleasure – and no one could complain that Sargent’s best portraits lack psychological penetration (try his Rodin for size).


Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885)

And many of the best are assembled at the NPG, a lot of them gathered in from various American galleries, notably the two astonishing portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, the double portrait of the Peilleron children (looking as if they’re auditioning for The Turn of the Screw)…

Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Loise Pailleron (1881)

Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Loise Pailleron (1881)


…the wonderful Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night)…

Le verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night) (1884)

Le verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night) (1884)

…the powerful full-length of the actor Edwin Booth (elder brother of John Wilkes Booth), The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati (a plein-air portrait of Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn)…

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907)

The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907)

and An Artist in His Studio, a quietly dazzling portrait of Ambrogio Raffele at work in a makeshift studio in his hotel room.

An Artist in His Studio (1904)

An Artist in His Studio (1904)


It is a joy to see all these – and many more – together. It’s only a shame that Sargent’s most notorious picture – the Portrait of Madame X – didn’t make it across the Atlantic. But for sheer painterly pleasure, this exhibition could hardly be topped. Enjoy!

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

4 thoughts on “John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery

    April 2, 2015 at 11:07

    The (American) National Gallery of Art has gained a number of Sargents through its takeover of the Corcoran, a museum with an endowment no longer sufficient to its needs. Not all of the NGA’s holdings are portraits, and a couple have no human figures in them at all. See .

    He was certainly working in the style of his time. At a museum of Russian art in St. Petersburg the other year I saw a number of portaits that could have passed, at least to an ignorant and hurried eye (mine for example), as Sargents.

    April 2, 2015 at 13:48

    Thanks George – some lovely stuff there, esp the Venice scenes.
    Sargent was certainly of his time – but what a time it was, when the level of competence even among amateurs and (ahem) dabblers was astonishingly high. What happened? Oh yes, they stopped teaching drawing…

    April 2, 2015 at 18:02

    Gerty and I often sit opposite one another in the Scottish National, me on one of those circular seat jobbies, her good self hanging about on the wall. Conversation is, as you can imagine, one sided, she looks tired, perhaps life in Lochnaw was not a bed of roses, the damp, midges and all can try one’s patience. Hanging around with a bunch of French impressionists may not help either.
    A fine portrait, draws the viewer in.

    April 3, 2015 at 01:06

    By the way, I was heartened to see evidence of a 19th-Century civilization that did not dismiss the ladies to the drawing room before the port arrived.

    And yes, the Venice street scene is one that I have long admired.

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