Thursday was a day of art & indulgence.
Walking through Chelsea, I kicked off the adventure at Birley Bakery with a delectable almond croissant, crispy golden-brown pastry, toasty warm out the oven and the sweet almond paste within.
Baked goods in hand, I was on the search for John Singer Sargent’s former home and studio.
Outside Birley Bakery in Chelsea.
Sargent (1856–1925) is known for his fabulous brushwork.
He painted portraits of society families, powerful art collectors or theatrical performers draped in satin, lace and rich velvets. He contrasted bolder, impressionist brushstrokes on the fabrics with a lightness of touch on the features.
Born in Florence in 1856 to American parents, he lived in several European countries as a child before shaping his artistic reputation in Paris. (You can see a portrait of his tutor in the article: Singer Sargent & Friends)
In 1886, Sargent settled in London at the centre of society with an accomplished circle of friends that included Henry James, Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeil Whistler.
Outside 31 Tite Street, Chelsea, London
His studio sits on 31-33 Tite St, and you can see the huge studio window above, it was actually in the same building as Whistler’s original studio. The buildings are unbelievable.
In 1900, Sargent expanded into number 31 cutting a hole in the wall between properties, using 31 as his home and keeping 33 as his studio. It would remain his home for the rest of his life.
“[The] windows face north and south, twenty feet of sheer light, with muslin soothing or baffling the light over the street-side window. It is not possible to be in this room and not feel better.
Candia McWilliam, Author and later resident of 33 Tite Street
I took 10 minutes to soak it all in and did a wobbly fountain pen sketch standing in the drizzle.
Tite Street is situated within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, just north of the River Thames, London, with peaceful, leafy streets. In the late 19th century, the neighbourhood was a fashionable location for people of an artistic and literary world, and its history of residents is dazzling!
Anna Lea Merritt, artist; Augustus John artist, Paul Edward Dehn, screenwriter for some of the Bond films, interestingly Fleming placed James Bond home only a few streets away; Peter Warlock, composer; Mick Jagger, Oscar Wilde, Turner and Whistler to name only a few, so just the walk down the street reading the blue plaques is exciting.
Pro tip: You can see an interactive map of the blue plaques in London here: Blue Plaque Map London
I also took a chocolate and almond croissant for an afternoon snack on the way to Tate Britain and excitedly carried on to the second part of my journey.
Sargent and Fashion
From 22 February 2024 until 7 July 2024, Tate Britain, London, is showing over sixty paintings by John Singer Sargent, including major portraits rarely seen in the U.K. Several items of period clothing are also shown alongside the portraits in which they were worn.
Sargent used fashion to express identity and personality. He regularly helped choose the outfits or costumes of his sitters, and the manipulation of the fabrics became central to his painting. He pinned, draped and tucked his sitter’s clothes to create new shapes and textures, rearranging a heavy coat tighter or allowing a silk gown to fall in pools of light.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, Detail, 1892
Sargent and his sitters thought carefully about the clothes he would paint them in, the messages they would send and how well particular outfits would translate to paint. One French critic noted at the time, ‘There is now a class who dresses after pictures, and when they buy a gown, they ask if it will paint?’
Initially, I was intrigued to see if these items of clothing and accessories were needed, would they crowd or detract from the already compelling paintings?
But in reality, they were very helpful as a teaching tool for understanding Sargent’s approach to painting. One of the hardest things when learning to paint is to learn what to leave in and what to leave out while still capturing the essence of the subject you’re looking at.
When you are studying Sargent’s work up close, it looks like a selection of random abstract marks. Only the subject is revealed when you step back from the canvas.
To the right of the painting is the original coat featured in the portrait
Lady Sassoon, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1907
In this portrait, Sargent posed Lady Sassoon wearing a taffeta cloak. Taffeta is a thin fabric often made from silk that shifts with the light and luxuriously falls to the floor in big folds.
Pink roses, a string of pearls, bangles on both wrists and an amazing hat of black ostrich feathers completed her outfit. Lady Sassoon was a talented artist herself, working in pastels. Raised in Paris, highly educated, and a music lover, they became good friends.
The fabric holds its shapes in concave pools that reveal the lightfall
You can see how Sargent shaped the dark cloak, wrapping it around her to get exactly the right play of light on the fabric. And because you’ve just got a black-on-black subject, Sargent needed something to break up the view, so he uses the inner pink lining of the cloak to direct our eyes.
It’s barely noticeable in real life, but it has been wrapped or rolled back to add a streak of colour that guides our view across the portrait’s surface. The diagonal adds movement; we see one hand, then our eyes travel down to the other hand, then curve back to us.
What I thought was interesting was that the cloak, in reality, has a muted pink lining, but in the painting, Sargent has increased the saturation. This stronger saturation is mirrored on the right-hand side of the painting. He’s pushed the colour to control our gaze.
When you study the hands, the upper one is quite detailed, but compared to the lower one, you can see how he’s used more refined brush strokes and lost all the edges of the fingers.
Notice how the upper finger is a lot pinker because of the reflected light from the pink of the lining, and the texture surrounding it is very gestural and more impasto. You’ll see this a lot through all of the paintings. Thin, smooth layers underneath and gestural marks over the top.
Black dresses became very fashionable during the late 19th century, and although they kept their association with mourning, etiquette was relaxed enough to make them a much more acceptable fashion, and the introduction of synthetic, intense, pure black dyes meant a real new depth of colour not seen before.
Paint it black
Sargent really enjoyed working black on black.
During the 1880s, he painted almost half his female sitters of different ages, all wearing black gowns. The colour was so integral to his work that when visiting his friend, French artist Claude Monet, Sargent couldn’t work upon learning Monet had no black paint. You can just imagine the scene!
Madame X, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1883-4
Sargent painted Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a black satin dress with jewelled straps; the pale flesh tone, which she accentuated with pale makeup, contrasted against the dark dress and background. Gautreau was admired in Parisian social circles for her great beauty and appearance. Although she had refused numerous similar requests from artists, she accepted Sargent’s offer to paint her in February 1883.
The most striking thing in this portrait is the pale skin next to the dark and the pose.
I love how he’s weighted the pose, so you can feel the pressure of her on the table. It also reminds me of the plaster cast you paint in a Classical Atelier, almost like a statue, so upright. It’s very powerful.
If we look again at Sargent’s hands, it’s very interesting how the one-hand position is posed on the left and the other is grabbing hold of the ruffles, which creates the tension in the gown and holds the whole pose together, so it just feels extremely straight.
As Madame X was originally shown in The Paris Salon 1884 exhibition scandal
Sargent’s original Madame X was first exhibited at Paris Salon’s 1884 exhibition in a much more daring pose, showing one of the jewelled straps of her dress falling off her shoulder.
Sargent insisted he painted her ‘exactly as she was dressed’, and Gautreau described it as a masterpiece in a letter to her friend.
But immediate reactions to the painting were negative; it instantly became a scandal in French society, criticising the indecency of the dress.
Sargent was severely disappointed by the critics and public reaction and overpainted the shoulder strap to raise it and make it look more securely fastened. He left Paris soon after, feeling his reputation had been damaged.
Sargent painting Madame X in his Paris Studio
And then you see the sketch of it.
I really liked this sketch, probably because I just love unfinished paintings. They always have a bit more energy to them, you can see how they were put together. But it’s so interesting to see how the hair looks a lot redder in the sketch because you’ve got other warm elements around it. This study was probably painted before the 1884 Paris Salon. The right strap is missing, suggesting that Sargent was unsure about its position.
He kept this painting until his death.
The Price of a Portrait
Even though Sargent adapted a style resembling it, he painted relatively few members of the British aristocracy, his clientele was international, and many of his sitters came from finance, commerce, the arts, or the sciences. A portrait by Sargent might serve as a reassuring symbol or announce the arrival of more recently wealthy people into high society.
Compelling portraits were widely discussed and frequently reproduced, so Sargent’s work was much in demand from sitters seeking an authoritative image of themselves and an upgrade in social status.
Here is a quote from John S. Sargent forr a portrait for the Harvard Club.
$2,000 for head and shoulders
$3,000 for 3/4 length
$4,000 for full length
Sounds a fair price, but this was 1896.
The equivalent today would be:
$73,432.62 for head and shoulders
$110,148.93 for 3/4 length
$146,865.24 for full length
Capturing the Light
Mrs Leoplold Hirsch, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1902
This is such an amazing painting of Mathilde Hirsch.
A passionate historian and collector of paintings and furniture may have inspired her choice of antique lace for her collar. The mark-making and brushstrokes are multilayered. They feel very frenetic when standing close to the painting, but the overall portrait is very serene.
Detail of lace collar
When you highlight just that central area, see how the form changes and the values of the skin tones are so subtle. It’s only when you see it in the context of the rest of the painting that suddenly, it feels a lot more three-dimensional and elegant.
What Sargent is so good at capturing, is light fall-off. It’s all about how the light drops in a scene and how he just seems to control where you look just from the fall off of the light.
Sir Frank (Athelstane) Swettenham, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1904
The portrait above of Sir Frank Swettenham is often reproduced in books, and they pump up his face so it looks like you can see him more, but that isn’t how the portrait actually looks.
It’s really dark on his face, and his trousers are the brightest part. Sargent is brave enough to flip it around. Rather than always focusing on the face, the trousers are the lightest value, and the figure emerges from the background.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1892
Sargent visited Lady Agnew in her London home to discuss her portrait and consider different gowns, finally deciding on a white sheer organza and silk dress with lavender accessories.
This is such a beautiful painting, and if you compare Lady Agnew’s hands, which are held together, quite hidden and subdued, compared to Madame X’s hands, which are very stylised, you’re now in this painting, just concentrated on the face.
I always think if you look at someone’s hands and how they use them, you can begin to see the character, how they’re holding their pose, so you’ve got to think about when you’re painting a portrait of a whole figure.
Does this subject work with the hands or tell a story using them, are you even going to highlight that or not? It’s not just about the face, it’s about the whole character.
The hands can be gestural and portray a mood. Whatever the hands are doing is often a reflection of what the sitter’s mind is doing.
He painted quickly, completed this portrait in just six sittings.
And if you are ever struggling to paint white, study this portrait. I know she’s got a bit of colour in the purple sash, but look how many colours are in the white gown.
There’s purples, yellows, and dark blues, and then there’s some pure white too. It’s also amazing how he then has the see-through sleeves of the top, and you can see her arm beneath it. In the top right corner, how has he even painted the organza so beautifully?
When you get up close other bits are so bold and quick. The sash is beautiful, it’s so incredibly simple. And I think it’s fabulous to see these very complicated fabrics Sargent manages to convey in a very simple way, but when you stand in front of the painting, you’re really just drawn to her face.
You’re taking in the rest, but he’s managed to control the edges and softness so that her actual face is the sharpest, most focused, most finished part. He has an amazing way of putting weight into people. I don’t quite know how he does it, but you feel like she’s sitting in a chair with her legs out and resting on the side.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1885-6
This is one of Sargent’s first paintings after moving from Paris to London. It was created in Broadway, a quaint, peaceful village set in the Cotswolds where Sargent stayed with his friend and fellow painter Millet.
(You can see some photos of Broadway in this article: Inspiration, Impressionism & the Power of Environment)
It has always been a magical painting, for me and I remember as a student, being blown away by how compelling the light is.
He painted it over two years, mostly outside in the few minutes when the light was perfect, giving the picture an overall purple glow of evening light. He was inspired by the Chinese lanterns hanging amongst the trees and lilies in full bloom in the garden and added the two girls, the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard wearing white dresses he had specially made.
When you look at this compared to Lady Agnew above , it doesn’t have that same sense of freedom of movement or the very confident, free-flowing brush marks.
But what works incredibly well in Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, which works well in all Sargent, is his graphical composition elements, like the shapes around the lilies. The way he composes the scene is so good. Like that kind of holds it all together.
Interestingly, this painting was created after leaving Paris and the Madame X scandal.
He was very anxious during this period, aiming to get back his reputation, so it feels like, in parts, it has been overpainted. As a reference point Lady Agnew was painted six or seven years later, by which point he’s relaxed and back in his stride.
The later works feel almost effortless. Take it or leave it.
As a painter you can’t help but let criticisms crowd your mind. There is nothing worse than having an expectation on your shoulders. I also think in exhibitions, it’s hard to tell the timelines when you’re walking through, most shows are based on a theme, but it’s interesting to see what else was happening in his life at the time the work was created.
Performance and Posture
La Carmencita, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1890
Some of the Sargent sitters, such as Ellen Terry and Carmencita, were professional performers who appealed to Sargent’s love of music and theatre.
Carmen Dauset Moreno better known as Carmencita, was a Spanish dancer who performed internationally. Known for her twisting and twirling dance style, Sargent captured her in a very posed stance; but her shimmering, heavily decorated dress adds real life and movement to the painting.
Lord Ribblesdale John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1902
Sitters such as Lord Ribblesdale were society personalities, he paid fastidious attention to his appearance in the everyday. In this portrait Sargent exaggerated the proportions of his silk tie and breeches.
By having some of the actual garments that Sargent painted, you have a unique opportunity to look at the fabric and folds and try to decide what you would include. How does the surface reflect light? What is the hue and the saturation? What parts of the essence describe the object without getting overly fussy or detailed?
Detail of the fabric in comparison to the painting interpretation.
When you’re painting impressionistic, the question is what don’t I paint? Not what can I add more of, but what can I take away from the subject and still tell the story of this object? So it’s like stripping it back down to how simple you can go without getting overly simplified.
You can see what Sargent focuses on compared to the finished painting. So find some fabric, place it next to a light, and observe the shapes.
A great practice when you’re learning to paint is to create a ‘master copy’. This is where you try to re-create a painting in the style of an artist you admire. The biggest thing the artist has already done for you is decipher the real-life image into more simplistic form that describes the subject.
Two Girls in White Dresses, John Singer Sargent, Oil on Canvas, 1911
Left: Singer Sargent, Right: Sorolla.
Sargent travelled extensively during the summer and made many paintings of his travelling companions.
In these works, the figures are nonchalant, allowing the clothing to take centre stage. These are unnamed people, painted outside, and I think they’re some of his most popular pieces. Sargent’s most expensive painting Group with Parasols (A Siesta) sold at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $23,528,000 dollars.
They are his most impressionistic works, capturing that sense of movement; but you can see he’s still obsessed with fabric and working on graphic elements.
It reminded me of Sorolla’s ‘Mending the Sails’ above because of the confidence to have a piece of white fabric as the central element to a composition. Sargent had a chance to experiment with fabric and texture in ways that would be impossible to do within the structure of a society portrait.
He was beginning to feel tired of making people look a certain way, it must have been like doing a Tatler shoot! He just said I’m just not interested in that anymore, and stopped oil portrait commissions when he was in his early 50s.
Much of his later career was dedicated to large-scale murals, he also served as a war artist during the First World War, when he made his largest oil paintings.
Sargent still occasionally painted friends and his final portraits are those of an artist with nothing left to prove.
The exhibition is called Sargent and Fashion, but I think Sargent and Fabric would have been more fitting, its on all Summer so hopefully you can get a chance to visit.
The show runs until 7th July 2024 : Sargent and Fashion
Apres Exhibition at the Tate cafe
P.S. I’d also like to thank reader Raquel, who first alerted me to the show when it was on in Boston, thanks!