Maho Sakoda, The Exhibition Report: ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’

Maho Sakoda is a fourth year PhD student at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Her thesis explores the relationship between literature and art in the nineteenth century. It especially focuses on works of George Eliot in relation to her contemporaries in the world of art such as by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon and Julia Margaret Cameron. It aims to reveal the ways in which the different genres of art collaborated and addressed similar topics relating to sexuality, aestheticism, and technological transition. Her blog:

The portraits by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) are unique in their balance between new and traditional aspects of portraiture. They attract us as viewers through their variety of subjects and multidimensional interpretations.

Although the less expensive, easy and fashionable technique of photography became prevalent in the late nineteenth century, portraiture remained a traditional discipline and was still appreciated by the aristocratic society. I wonder then if we can see the development of any new and unique styles in nineteenth century portraiture. How much did this traditional genre allow Victorian painters to express their individual creativity?

The well-known English painter, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), painted a substantial number of portraits in his late career. Millais’s style went back to the eighteenth century English tradition. The evaluation of his late career is interesting, because his portraits appear to be devoid of the radical features that illuminated the works of his earlier career. [1] On the other hand, one can observe something ‘new’ in the portraits of John Sargent. A current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends [12 Feb-25 May 2015]’, organised in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum in N.Y, will contradict the view that Victorian portraiture was a conventional genre. It highlights and demonstrates that we could view portraiture from a new perspective in relation to a variety of artistic fields including literature, music, and theatre.

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence to American parents. He trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in France. He enjoyed socialising with the prominent artists of the time such as Monet, Whistler, and Rodin. In 1886, he moved in London but he kept travelling around the world including to the exotic east and developed his creativity. In the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition rooms are divided by the places where the painter visited or lived: Paris, Broadway in the Cotswolds, London, Boston and New York, and other areas of Europe.

The title of the exhibition ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ evokes a unique possibility that Sargent could have made his own artistic group. Some people, including me, are fascinated with art and literature circles such as the Blue Stocking society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Bloomsbury group, and also artistic movements such as Romanticism, Impressionism and Modernism. What is attractive in the distinctive circles and movements could be that one feels the creative dynamics and collective energy of each of the artists’ works that were augmented and motivated by the fellowships. Interestingly, Sargent did not particularly belong to any circles of the time, although he was influenced by Impressionist techniques. However, the portraits by Sargent imply an artistic communication between the painter and his sitters including prominent writers of the time such as Vernon Lee, Robert Loius Stevenson, Edmond Goose, Henry James, Coventry Patmore and George Meredith; his subjects also included actresses such as Ellen Terry, musicians, music composers and conductors, singers, dancers, and even a popular gynaecologist. The exhibition invites us to imagine the chemistry that might have been felt between the painters and the sitters. It shows the art of Sargent and the art that inspired the painter.

One could observe new elements of nineteenth century portraiture through the portrayal of women by Sargent. Situated in the Paris room of the exhibition, the portrait of Vernon Lee, British writer and art historian, the pseudonym of Violet Paget, draws our attention. Henry James describes her:“ as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent.”[2]The painter and the writer met at Nice in 1860 and became close friends thereafter. After the sitting, Vernon reported her experience to her mother in 1881:

I enjoyed it very much; John talking the whole time & strumming the piano between whiles. I like him. The sketch is, by everyone’s admission, extraordinarily clever & characteristic; it is of course mere dabs& blurs& considerably caricatured, but certainly more like me than I expected anything could—rather fierce and cantankerous. John said he wd[sic] like to do a real portrait of me someday. He said I sit very well; the goodness of my sitting seems to consist in never staying quiet a single moment. [3]

One could imagine that the painter and writer could not stop chatting, perhaps discussing art. This can be seen in the description of her mouth, half-opened, and that of her wide opened eyes. The painting was completed in only three hours, but the painter’s swift rendering eminently represents her shrewd intelligence that Sargent admired. The painter was often attracted to unorthodox types of women of the time. [4]

Vernon Lee, (1881) Tate Britain
Judith Gautier, (1883) Detroit Institute of Arts, USA, Image from Wikipedia

Another example from the Paris room was the portrait of Judith Gautier (1883). This daughter of the prominent French novelist Theophile Gautier translated Chinese and Japanese texts. As an orientalist, she embraced an unorthodox style which is suggested in the kimono-like loose robe she wears in the portrait. It shows that people including women had started to openly enjoying unconventional and oriental tastes. Sargent himself was also drawn to oriental culture as evidenced by his painting A Javanese Dancing Girl (1889).

A Javanese Dancing Girl can be seen in the London room of the exhibition. This room is a fascinating area with black walls that make the individual sitters stand out. What I especially found interesting is the combination of the portrait of the aged Coventry Patmore and a variety of female figures. Patmore is a significant Victorian poet known in particular for his poem ‘Angel in the House’, first published in 1856, which delineated an idealised female type of the time. However, there is no woman in this room that matches those Patmore detailed. Some of the female models in this room are actresses and dancers: They have their own careers and have moved outside of traditional roles. Instead of depicting women in domesticity, Sargent portrayed women engaged in the public realm, as can be seen in the portraits of actress Ellen Terry and that of the Javanese dancer. His portrait of Patmore shows a more elderly representative of past values and is juxtaposed with the next generation of women who replaced his female types.

Coventry Patmore, (1894) National Portrait Gallery
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) Tate Britain

One can see that the portraits by Sargent mirror the transformation of Victorian society through the element of oriental culture and female portrayals. The painter was inspired by people from different genres and culture. The exhibition shows that portraiture did evolve in the nineteenth century through collaboration with other cultural fields and reflections of societal change while preserving the tradition of the art form.



[1] Arthur Symonds describes the painter in The Savoy of 1896 thusly: “. . . he painted whatever would bring him ready money and immediate fame . . .” Quoted in Millais: Portraits, Peter Funnell and Malcom Warner ed. (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1999), p13

[2] Quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray ed. Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, (London: National Portrait Gallery Publishing, 2015), p57

[3] Quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray ed. John Singer Sergent: The Early Portraits Complete Paintings Volume 1, ed., (New Heaven and London: Yale UP, 1998) p. 76

[4] Warren Andelson, Deborah Davis, and Elaine Kilmurray ed. Sargent’s Women, (Boston: Adelson Galleries, 2003)


*You could make a comparison with other exhibitions such as ‘Victorian Obsession’. See Serena Trowbridge, ‘The Palace of Art’


Other Related Posts:

Richard Whitney, ‘Translating Louise Rosenblatt’s PhD (1931) on ‘Art for Art’s’ Sake’

Pearl Chaozon-Bauer, ‘The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900’


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