Sargent and Fashion at the Tate Britain

This week is the final week of the Tate Britain’s ‘Sargent and Fashion’, so we sent Skye (on work experience) to review the exhibition.

Tate Britain launched the ‘Sargent and Fashion’ exhibition from February 22nd to July 7th. This exhibition sheds new light on John Singer Sargent’s acclaimed works, showing how he not only painted his sitters but also worked as a stylist to craft their image. He used fashion as a powerful tool to express identity and personality, choosing outfits for his models and manipulating their clothing, like pinning garments to create new shapes and textures. The exhibition displays Sargent’s work alongside examples of period fashion, including original garments depicted in his paintings.

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) was the leading portraitist of his generation, famed for evoking the luxury and elegance of wealthy Edwardian society. The artist was born in Florence to American parents and spent most of his life in Europe, visiting museums and gaining artistic exposure from an early age. In May 1874, Sargent entered the teaching atelier of Carolus-Duran, a French portraitist in Third Republic France who encouraged his students to exploit broad planes of viscous pigment, and to preserve the freshness of sketch in completed works. His works are characterised by a masterful blend of realism and impressionism, using bold brushstrokes which possess fluidity as well as focusing on realism within the face, adding a dynamic quality and setting his portraits apart from the more formal styles of his contemporaries. His loose, painterly marks look careless up close, but from a distance merge to create a deft portrait of the subject. For example, this technique can be seen in Sybil Sassoon, The Countess of Rocksavage (1913) and In a Garden, Corfu (1909).

Madame X (1884)

Sargent’s Madame X was exhibited  in 1884 at the Salon, at the Palais des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Virginie Gautreau, the sitter, was a muse well-known for her bold personal demeanour and style, two characteristics Sargent intended to capture in her portrait through originally painting one of her dress straps slipping off her shoulder. He described it as ‘the best thing I have done’ however, the painting received more ridicule than praise. Many criticised the ‘indecency’ of the dress, deeming the portrait as vulgar and inappropriate. Sargent was forced to re-work the piece, repainting the strap to try to dampen the furore. He moved to London shortly after, his reputation somewhat damaged.

Sargent’s position as a commissioned artist to 19th century high society complicated his ability to create outside of convention. His oeuvre exists in two capacities: one, paid for and in alignment with the comforts of gendered roles, and another, challenging traditional societal notions. Ideas surrounding femininity, masculinity, and the roles of both purveyed the society in which he worked, influenced his paintings significantly. For example, he conformed to these expectations in Harvard benefactor Henry Lee Higginson’s portrait, painted in 1903, who appears as the epitome of virile manliness. His posture is upright and dignified, conveying his authoritative status as a successful businessman. Furthermore, Sargent used a restrained, earthy palette and subtle highlights reflecting the formal nature of the subject.

Henry Lee Higginson (1903)

On the other hand, the exhibition draws our attention to Sargent’s more personal works, highlighting how he was drawn to sitters who used clothing to subvert gendered conventions, and embraced the expressive possibilities of clothing. Male sitters were perhaps depicted in feminine spaces or in unconventional clothing.  Take Sargent’s Dr Pozzi at Home which depicts Samuel-Jean Pozzi, a well-established Parisian doctor, in an almost ecclesiastical mode, with a gracious pose and crimson costume that references images of popes and religious figures. By showing him ‘at home’, Sargent subverts the conventions for portraits of professional men by depicting the intimacy of domestic space. Similarly, his portrait of the renowned Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) challenges societal expectations of women through her direct, self-assured gaze and the informality of her pose. The soft, fluid brushstrokes convey a sense of immediacy, humanising her and presenting her as a complex individual rather than a static, idealised figure.

Overall, this exhibition on John Singer Sargent was a captivating exploration of the interplay between fashion and painting in his art. By placing major paintings alongside featuring items of clothing, it highlighted the artist’s keen attention to fabric, texture and design to enhance his portraits’ allure.

Sargent and Fashion is on until Sunday 7th July at the Tate Britain. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/sargent-and-fashion

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