John Singer Sargent, Group with Parasols (Siesta), c. 1904–5, Oil on Canvas, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum's exhibit “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends" does not begin with a painting of an heiress or a picture of the artist, that deep crease between his grey eyebrows. It begins with a tall vertical window, a little larger than a full-body portrait. This window opens onto the show, forcing viewers to confront two unfortunate truths: a successful portrait painter cannot simply paint "from life." He must build a new world for his sitter, a world with nice lighting, good posture, and a striking composition. He also must let the sitter eclipse him; he must cultivate a fascination for his subject, but not himself.

And John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was certainly a successful portrait painter. Though born to American parents, he grew up in Europe, where he studied with Carolus-Duran and León Bonnat. He first exhibited works in the Paris Salon in the 1880s, and soon became one of the most beloved painters of his time. He bounced between Europe and America for his entire career, collecting friends in London, Paris, New York, and Boston. While wealthy intellectuals and businessmen commissioned monumental Sargent portraits, the artist also painted many of his friends for pleasure. (He often gave these portraits to the sitters, and refused to accept a cent in return.) Both commissioned and non-commissioned portraits hang on the Met's walls right now, forming the expansive, astounding "Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends."

The curators have grouped the paintings in chronological, geographic order—the first room, bright and bold, holds paintings made in Paris between 1874 and 1885. This includes the “Portrait of Madame X” (1884), Sargent's most famous and scandalous work. The ravishing socialite preens at the back of the room, with a wall to herself. Her black velvet bodice absorbs incoming light, while her skin glows like a half-melted candle, almost dripping with arrogance. The room also includes a few unconventional portraits—despite his commercial success, Sargent had daring artistic sensibilities. In "A Gust of Wind," for instance, the viewer looks up from a sandy bank at Judith Gautier, who looms in a cream-colored gown. And in "Madame Édouard Pailleron," (1879) we look down at Marie Pailleron, who stands among crocuses. The garden has shadings of Symbolism, dappled and flat as a Kilmt plein-air painting.

The next room, far less regal, features the "Broadway" paintings, completed in England between 1885 and 1889. Here, Sargent tried his hand at intimacy and impressionism. In the small "An Out-of-Doors Study," (1889) Paul Helleu and his wife sit near a canoe, their faces obscured by straw hats. Helleu paints with a careful hand and rapt attention as grasses sway around him.

Sargent was close with Monet and admired his art, yet the American painter's stabs at impressionism were less successful than his realist works—they're a little dull, lacking his trademark vivacity. Still, the "Broadway" paintings also include informal interior scenes, nods to Degas and Manet rather than Monet. In "Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night)," (1884) for instance, Edith and Albert Vickers enjoy a postprandial glass of port. The composition is startling: while Albert broods at the edge of the painting, Edith stares out from the center. She has a defiant, impenetrable gaze, like a Hopper figure's lonely ancestor. And a deep ruby red suffuses the room, glancing off silver lamps and a chalice. The painting has an uncanny resemblance to Matisse's "Red Room."

The curators dedicate a third room to his London paintings, made between 1889 and 1913. The large portraits of Ellen Tarry, La Carmencita, and Mrs Hugh Hammersley are resplendent against dusky blue walls. In this impressive room, it becomes clear why Sargent stopped painting portraits around 1907. The exhibit does a wonderful job of exhausting visitors, just as the endless sitters and subjects must have exhausted poor Sargent. Each placard sums up the life of another literary or artistic figure, from the haughty Gabriel Fauré to delicate Graham Robertson, personalities so vibrant they jump off the canvas. (An art critic of the time wrote that the Mrs Hugh Hammersley's portrait "literally vibrates with life.") Sargent never failed to capture a subject's spirit and these grand works feel like hurricanes, rushes and whorls of color spinning around a calm, exquisite face.

The exhibit's final rooms document Sargent's later work: candy-colored watercolors, plein-air paintings, lively charcoal sketches. The placards are no longer biographies—some even mention "unidentified figures" and "blurred features." In "Group with Parasols," (1904) for instance, Sargent painted four friends in an Alpine meadow. The grasses encroach on the figures, and the canvas seems almost abstract, a muddle of greens and whites and browns. These subjects don't eclipse Sargent; they don't demand recognition as Isabella Stewart Gardner does in her astonishing portrait. (It has the symmetry and splendor of an orthodox icon.) Instead, the artist's playful good nature lights up the last rooms.

Despite this turn towards his own artistic interests, Sargent painted only a handful of self-portraits, two of which appear in the exhibit. They're easy to miss, lost among towering pictures. (In fact, they were both commissions.) He wears the same solemn expression in both, his body at angle, his face obscured by shadows. The curators write that "Sargent was not naturally self-reflective; he was too much up and at life for that." In other words, he was too often with other people, painting them, sketching them, watching them sing and act and play the piano.

As they leave the exhibit, visitors walk through a gift shop. A large mirror greets them, a counterpoint to that original window. Though the mirror has a commercial function (for those trying on scarves and Sargent-themed jewelry), it's an interesting end to the show, creating a parallel between artist and visitor. Just as John Singer Sargent reclaimed his own identity after years of painting portraits, so too must the visitor reclaim his own identity after such a comprehensive exhibition."SaS

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, which opened on June 30, can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until October 4, 2015.


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