John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

“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.

NPG 1767; Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Henry James, John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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


Warts and All: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy of Arts

Not long before the Montagues and the Capulets were battling it out in Verona, the Brembati and the Albani were having their own problems 70 miles away in Bergamo.  The Brembati-Albani clash involved fewer star-crossed lovers and vials of poison, however, and instead turned on its protagonists’ opposing loyalties to Spanish or Venetian rule.  But if the Bergamo feud was less romantic than its Veronese equivalent, its end was no less bloody, and, in 1563, one of the Albani family’s servants killed Count Achille Brembati as he prayed in the city’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  After the murder, the Albani were forced to leave Bergamo forever; but today the two families have been reunited on the walls of the Royal Academy, where they again come face to face as part of Giovanni Battista Moroni.   Moroni was Bergamo’s leading painter at the height of the Brembati-Albani dispute, and by the mid-1550s had cornered the portrait market of the city’s high and mighty.  But mindful of his next commission, he was not one for taking sides: in 1553 he painted Isotta Brembati, two years later he was painting Lucia Albani and her husband, Faustino Avogadro, then in 1560 he took on Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, who soon after married Isotta.

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Isotta Brembati (c.1555), oil on canvas, © Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo/ Marco Mazzoleni

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (“The Lady in Red”) (c.1550-60), oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, London













Isotta and Lucia hang opposite one another.  Resplendent in their Sunday best outfits, they drip with jewels, holding their fancy fans.  The aim is clear: to look as important and as rich as possible, and Moroni has risen to the challenge.  Who can miss the pink and white Ostrich feathers of Isotta’s fan, the golden-faced ermine around her neck, or the splendour of Lucia’s gold-shot silk?  The portraits of the husbands are no less flamboyant: Faustino is in his military gear, an enormous feather poking from his hat and an even more enormous plumage rising from the shiny helmet by his side, which must have seen as many battles as Lucia’s golden fan.  Not to be outdone, Gian Gerolamo is head-to-toe in pink, and holds a sword so long it cannot fit in the picture. Continue reading