“No more paughtraits… I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another, especially of the Upper Classes.” So wrote John Singer Sargent in 1907. Controversial words from an artist whose reputation was based almost entirely upon painting people. But true to his word, after this year he turned his paintbrush to landscape: “Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns which I should gladly do, but not the human face.” Not that he gave up portraiture altogether during the final two decades of his life. He painted both President Woodrow Wilson and John D Rockefeller in 1917, and continued each year to carry out a handful of commissions, including, in 1913, a painting of his old friend Henry James. The picture was requested by a group of the writer’s admirers to mark his seventieth birthday, and despite having quite “lost his nerve” when it came to painting portraits – as Sargent confided to James himself – the work, on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, seemed to please the sitter, “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst”, James wrote.
It is not surprising that Sargent was sick of portraits. By 1909 he had produced nearly 500 and the constraints of the medium and pressures of his patrons had become too much. But it is for his portraits that he is remembered and even when the dukes, duchesses and politicians are set aside, as the National Portrait Gallery does for its current show, there are writers, actors, artists, children, aesthetes and musicians aplenty.
Over the past twenty years, Sargent’s reputation has been salvaged. Continue reading