Sargent in Stockholm
February 8, 2019
I’ve always enjoyed grand portraits by the great artists: Van Dyck, Velazquez, Gainsborough, you know the list.
I came late to John Singer Sargent. I first encountered his work at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Two years later I was enchanted by the intimacy of his watercolours at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and last year his portrait of Samuel-Jean de Pozzi was a highlight of High Society at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
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A retrospective of Sargent’s work was the hot ticket for the re-opening of the National Museum, Stockholm, in 2018. It was time to renew some acquaintances.
Mrs Mary Hammersley, a society hostess, is pictured in the drawing room of her Hampstead home, where she lives with her banker husband, and everything sparkles: the conversation, the furnishings, her dress, her slippers.
Sisters Ena and Betty Wertheimer are encountered on their way to the ball, arm in arm; one in ruby velvet, the other in ivory damask.
“Mr Sargent, we feel drop-dead gorgeous, our Daddy is rich, and our dresses are fabulous….”
Sargent was a hugely successful society painter, heir to the tradition of courtly swagger portraits. Like Velazquez, he was able to paint without preparatory drawing, creating images directly onto canvas with deft and fluid brushwork. He described the texture of luxurious fabrics with a light touch; sometimes he scrutinised his subjects with a contemporary detachment.
He could be critical of his patrons.
In 1907 he painted Lady Sassoon (née Aline Rothschild).
Her family disliked his portrayal; they were dissatisfied with a specific detail of the painting.
Sargent claimed ironically “A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth”.
As well as his lavish portraits, Sargent was a prolific and versatile painter of landscapes and other subjects.
He travelled extensively in Europe and North America, recording his experiences in over 2,000 watercolours, as well as oil paintings. He was often accompanied on his travels by his three nieces, who appear in a number of his pictures.
The Lady with the Umbrella was one of many depictions of his niece Rose-Marie.
She was the cover-girl of the exhibition of Sargent’s watercolours at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2017.
Rose-Marie married a French art historian who was killed in action in 1914. She devoted the war years to nursing blinded soldiers at a hospital in Reuilly.
On Good Friday 1918, Rose-Marie too was killed. Attending a concert in Paris, she and 92 others died in a German bombardment.
This event was instrumental in Sargent becoming an official war artist in July of the same year. While kept at a distance from the action, he painted many watercolours while researching for his monumental oil painting Gassed, completed in March the following year. It shows two lines of soldiers, their eyes bandaged, being guided along duckboards by medical orderlies.
Another group of soldiers is glimpsed between the legs of the column, playing football in the evening sun, perhaps as a note of optimism for the future.
Gassed is in the Imperial War Museum’s collection.
Another death in Paris
The exhibition in Stockholm provided a second opportunity to meet Doctor Pozzi, first encountered in Amsterdam.
Pozzi was a highly respected gynaecologist who was shot to death in his Paris home by a dissatisfied patient.
The picture’s caption in Stockholm revealed an intriguing detail: the patient in question was a man.