Visit John Singer Sargent’s studio

14 May 2015

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery re-visits the work of John Singer Sargent, an Edwardian painter specialising in the portraits of the rich and famous. Explore the elegant Parisian studio of the great portraitist with our interactive image map and get to know him a little better.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends showcases the artist's more intimate paintings of his circle of friends and is on until 25 May 2015, 50% off with a National Art Pass.


Sargent in his studio at 33 boulevard Berthier, Paris, 1884
©Private collection

Detail

1. This photograph was taken around 1883-84 when the artist had made enough money to move from his bohemian Left Bank studio to an elegant space at 41 Boulevard Berthier on the Right Bank; a street popular for art studios due to the good light and skylights on the top floors. At this point Sargent was taking many successful commissions including the reported ex-lover of Madame Gautreau (Madame X), Dr. Pozzi, a handsome gynaecologist and society womaniser. By 1898 Sargent could command 1,000 guineas for a full length portrait – a large fee in those days.

2. This is Sargent’s famously controversial painting, Madame X, before it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884 with disastrous consequences. The portrait is of the American socialite Madame Gautreau; Sargent was so enchanted by her beauty and desperate to paint her that he did so without commission. However, the plunging neckline, provocative dress straps, sensual pose and unnaturally pale skin did nothing but shock critics at the Paris Salon. The painting of the ‘professional beauty’, which was aimed to establish Sargent’s position as a leading portrait artist in Paris, left the pair scandalised and humiliated.

Although Sargent left Paris permanently that summer he kept his Paris studio for a further two years, exhibiting his beloved portrait privately. He said of Madame X, ‘It is the best thing I have ever done’ and sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. The studio was eventually taken over by the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens in 1886, bringing Sargent’s Paris dream to an end.

3. Sargent took a keen interest in the frames of his work, choosing richly decorated antique French frames and Italian 17-century models. The frame of Madame X here is a detailed classical frame with overlapping leaves; it has since been changed several times.

4. Sargent is standing next to his painting The Breakfast Table which is probably still in progress at this point and features his younger sister Violet at their parent’s house in Nice. Sargent gave the painting to his friend, Albert Besnard, an artist with whom he and others formed a circle of artist friends in the mid-1880s. It is now owned by Harvard Art Museums.

5. This is Dwarf with Mastiff, Copy after Velazquez produced in 1879 at the Prado in Madrid. Sargent visited Spain as a young man in his twenties where he studied the work and technique of Velazquez – one of his main influencers and inspirations throughout his career.

6. The Japanese porcelain dolls on the mantelpiece are in keeping with the fashion for all things Japanese in the mid-late 18th century. The trend was given the name Japonisme and refers to the impact of Japanese aesthetics on French art, design and culture. This cultural movement had a profound effect on the Impressionists; the wood-block prints, ceramics, vivid floral prints and theatrical dress influenced the paintings of Van Gogh, Whistler, Monet and the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. The sweeping floral silks or tapestries across the archway also reflect this cultural phenomenon. These items also illustrate Sargent’s openness to new influences and experiences.

7. If you look closely at the tapestry hiding Sargent’s bed it is the same used as the backdrop to the artist’s celebrated portrait Lady Agnew of Lochnaw which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898.

Parisian studios at this time were often theatrical, grand affairs showcasing the individual artist’s aesthetic tastes to create a creative ambience. Filled with antiques, artefacts, instruments, props and backdrops, these elegant spaces helped to project the artist’s persona to clients, fellow artists, patrons and cultural commentators.

8. We can see Sargent’s piano peeking out here which demonstrates the artist’s passion and gift for the instrument. The artist often played the piano for his sitters during a break and music also played an important role in his personal and social life. Sargent was an emphatic Wagnerian at a time when the composer particularly divided tastes and opinion; insulting the traditionalists and inspiring the younger generation. His enthusiasm and appetite for all kinds of music inspired Sargent to make friends with the leading composers, singers and musicians of the time – some of which he produced portraits of. After the failure of Madame X in Paris the artist even considered leaving painting for music.

Hover over the image to discover Sargent’s elegant Parisian studio. Click on a section to zoom in and take a look at the artist’s paintings and possessions.

1. This photograph was taken around 1883-84 when the artist had made enough money to move from his bohemian Left Bank studio to an elegant space at 41 Boulevard Berthier on the Right Bank; a street popular for art studios due to the good light and skylights on the top floors. At this point Sargent was taking many successful commissions including the reported ex-lover of Madame Gautreau (Madame X), Dr. Pozzi, a handsome gynaecologist and society womaniser. By 1898 Sargent could command 1,000 guineas for a full length portrait – a large fee in those days.

2. This is Sargent’s famously controversial painting, Madame X, before it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884 with disastrous consequences. The portrait is of the American socialite Madame Gautreau; Sargent was so enchanted by her beauty and desperate to paint her that he did so without commission. However, the plunging neckline, provocative dress straps, sensual pose and unnaturally pale skin did nothing but shock critics at the Paris Salon. The painting of the ‘professional beauty’, which was aimed to establish Sargent’s position as a leading portrait artist in Paris, left the pair scandalised and humiliated.

Although Sargent left Paris permanently that summer he kept his Paris studio for a further two years, exhibiting his beloved portrait privately. He said of Madame X, ‘It is the best thing I have ever done’ and sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. The studio was eventually taken over by the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens in 1886, bringing Sargent’s Paris dream to an end.

3. Sargent took a keen interest in the frames of his work, choosing richly decorated antique French frames and Italian 17-century models. The frame of Madame X here is a detailed classical frame with overlapping leaves; it has since been changed several times.

4. Sargent is standing next to his painting The Breakfast Table which is probably still in progress at this point and features his younger sister Violet at their parent’s house in Nice. Sargent gave the painting to his friend, Albert Besnard, an artist with whom he and others formed a circle of artist friends in the mid-1880s. It is now owned by Harvard Art Museums.

5. This is Dwarf with Mastiff, Copy after Velazquez produced in 1879 at the Prado in Madrid. Sargent visited Spain as a young man in his twenties where he studied the work and technique of Velazquez – one of his main influencers and inspirations throughout his career.

6. The Japanese porcelain dolls on the mantelpiece are in keeping with the fashion for all things Japanese in the mid-late 18th century. The trend was given the name Japonisme and refers to the impact of Japanese aesthetics on French art, design and culture. This cultural movement had a profound effect on the Impressionists; the wood-block prints, ceramics, vivid floral prints and theatrical dress influenced the paintings of Van Gogh, Whistler, Monet and the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. The sweeping floral silks or tapestries across the archway also reflect this cultural phenomenon. These items also illustrate Sargent’s openness to new influences and experiences.

7. If you look closely at the tapestry hiding Sargent’s bed it is the same used as the backdrop to the artist’s celebrated portrait Lady Agnew of Lochnaw which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898.

Parisian studios at this time were often theatrical, grand affairs showcasing the individual artist’s aesthetic tastes to create a creative ambience. Filled with antiques, artefacts, instruments, props and backdrops, these elegant spaces helped to project the artist’s persona to clients, fellow artists, patrons and cultural commentators.

8. We can see Sargent’s piano peeking out here which demonstrates the artist’s passion and gift for the instrument. The artist often played the piano for his sitters during a break and music also played an important role in his personal and social life. Sargent was an emphatic Wagnerian at a time when the composer particularly divided tastes and opinion; insulting the traditionalists and inspiring the younger generation. His enthusiasm and appetite for all kinds of music inspired Sargent to make friends with the leading composers, singers and musicians of the time – some of which he produced portraits of. After the failure of Madame X in Paris the artist even considered leaving painting for music.

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Sargent in his studio at 33 boulevard Berthier, Paris, 1884 ©Private collection