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Revelations: Portraits of Artists and Friends Exhibit

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends(continuing through October 4, 2015). Going in I knew two sides of Sargent. I knew a virtuosic portrait painter of notable persons in satin and jewels and amid rich furnishings, and the Sargent of latter years who worked in out of doors in water color and pushed that medium for all it was worth. The watercolors are as loose and juicy as the portraits are tightly controlled. Until I attended this exhibit I thought the looseness was the mark of Sargent's mature work. What I learned in this show is that throughout his entire painting career Sargent who exhibited technical proficiency across a great range of work and he capitalized the properties of whichever media he was working in, be it oil or water color, to maximize the effects he could create. This show begins with portraits of Sargent's friends. Sargent had a wide range of friends, notable artists, writers and actors. He painted these friends and exhibited the portraits in order to obtain commissions, leveraging his relationships for self promotion. A lesson to all of us who think artists never had to self promote in the past. In these portraits, you feel the personal connection between the subject and the artist, here a sense of intimacy is conveyed and the handling is loose and painterly. I took many many pictures as I walked through the exhibit, I will share some of these along with my musings...

In this double portrait, painted with great immediacy, Sargent posed his fellow artists in a very unusual composition. The one artist in the rear painted in silhouette is looking off to the left while the other looks directly at the viewer in a seemingly mocking manner.

In this portrait, Sargent puts all the focus and emphasis on the subject, who directly engages the viewer by describing the features of this friend in great detail, while sketching in the background vaguely in broad loose strokes.

This painting which seems to have been quickly executed, masterfully captures his friend. I particularly love the glasses and the gaze behind the glasses.

The paintings in the overall exhibit are arranged in chronological order. In the next section of the show we see the posed and staged commissioned portraits alongside the portraits of intimates. Sargent continued to paint his friends in an experimental way even as he took on as Sargent commissions that he executed in a refined "academic" fashion . Here are two loosely painted portraits that situate the friends in the outdoor locale. In both of these, the drenching ocean light is as important to the compositions as the solo figures. While these paintings lack some of the the theatricality of the later commissioned work, they make up for that with a feeling of spontaneity and intimacy.

This exhibit demonstrates that as Sargent garnered more commissions, his subjects continued to include artists, and performers as well as wealthy society members and their families.

To my eye, Sargent incorporated things he learned from portrait making by Vazquez and Manet in this and many others of these commissioned works. Here you see the strongly contrasting lights and darks, use of modulated colors building up density, richness, and sumptuousness, the no fuss presentation of the subjects and that lush bold brush work!

Look at this luscious painting, can't you just feel the texture of the fabric? It is so gorgeous! Somehow I associate this manipulation of paint on canvas not just with creased and crumpled satin but a bowl of vanilla ice cream as well! (Ha!)

And this one painted the year Manet died, could be a tribute to Manet... The next image was the first painting of Sargent's to be exhibited at the Royal Academy in London is of a friend who was a prominent physician and art collector. The notes at the museum tell us he was an innovative physician. Looking at the painting he seems quite impressive, the treatment is reminiscent of paintings of cardinals, but the hand gestures indicate to me a sensual sensibility. It is a fine example of the many staged portraits Sargent made with dramatic lighting and costume. In this ode to the theater, he portrays the elaborate costume of the actress Ellen Terry in her role as Lady Macbeth, as she raises the crown on to her head.The handling of paint and color here produce the shimmering effect, I stood back to be better able to appreciate this glamorous painting.

This is a very small sampling of the paintings in the exhibit. I urge you to go to the Metropolitan Museum to see these paintings. Viewing images of paintings is a poor substitute for actually standing in front of the canvas and experiencing it firsthand. Please let me know your impressions of the exhibit!

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