Art exhibition review: Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain 22 February – 7 July 2024

Today, I went to see a special preview of the latest exhibition Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain celebrating the timeless style and artistic genius of the great American portrait painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). I’m a big fan of Sargent’s work. I saw another big show of his paintings back in 2006. Seeing some of those awesome paintings again yesterday made me super happy. If you’re into art or fashion (or both!), you’re in for a treat. Sargent is known for his breathtaking portraits, but less as a stylist ante litteram. From luxurious velvet dresses to opulent opera cloaks, this display is like stepping into a glamorous time machine.

The exhibition shows off Sargent’s talent for not just painting, but also styling his subjects. Imagine being able to step back in time and wear those exquisite garments every day!

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Gertrude Vernon) 1892

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Gertrude Vernon) 1892 – Sargent chose for his sitter a gown of white silk with sheer organza sleeves and lavender trimmings

As you wander through the exhibition, you’ll notice something special – alongside the stunning paintings are the actual clothes worn by the people Sargent immortalised on canvas. It’s a rare glimpse into both the fashion of the time and the lives of Sargent’s sitters.

It’s not just about his paintings, but also about how he helped people look their best in his portraits. Tate Britain has teamed up with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to bring together 60 of his works, some of which are really rare. And get this – they’ve got real clothes from the time, like what the people in the paintings wore! It’s a cool way to see how Sargent captured the style of his era and the people who lived in it.

When you first step into the exhibition, you’ll spot a stunning old opera cloak that’s been kept in amazing condition over the years. It made me wish I could travel back in time to the Victorian era just so I could wear outfits like that every day. Right beside it is Sargent’s portrait of Lady Sassoon, looking sharp and lively. The dresses on display really bring the paintings to life, which is something you don’t see every day.

sargent and fashion black opera cloak collage

Sargent’s portrait of Lady Sassoon 1907

Then there’s “Madame X” – a portrait that caused quite a stir back in the 1880s with its daring dress. It was so bold, especially for Paris at the time. 

Sargent's portrait of Madame X

Sargent’s portrait of Madame X 1883-4

Sargent was all about pushing boundaries, especially in a city like Paris where the art world was split between tradition and innovation. He hung out with rebels like Monet and Manet, and you can see that influence in his work, especially in “Madame X.”

But it wasn’t just about painting pretty pictures. Sargent was a master at capturing the essence of his subjects, often dictating what they wore to suit his vision. Talk about being a trendsetter!

And it’s not just about the rich and famous – Sargent’s portraits also give us a glimpse into everyday life, from aristocrats to performers. You’ll find yourself drawn into the stories behind each painting, feeling like you’re part of the scene.

Sargent was really good at making his paintings look alive. Instead of just doing what rich people wanted, he used their clothes to make them stand out and show off his own style. He’d sometimes change things up or leave stuff out to make his paintings more interesting. Like, in the Lady Sassoon painting dated 1907, he even played around with the fabric of her cloak to make the picture pop.

When you see all the fancy clothes in the exhibition, you might feel a bit jealous. I mean, those people Sargent painted look so elegant in their outfits. And you might even wish you could have some of those gorgeous clothes for yourself.

One outfit that really catches your eye is Ellen Terry’s beetle cloak for Lady Macbeth. It’s right there next to the painting of her looking all intense with a crown on her head. Talk about dramatic!

Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth collage

Sargent’s portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth collage

The clothes in the exhibition aren’t just about looking good. They actually help show what kind of person the artist wanted to portray.

Each picture is like a big production. Sargent would sometimes tell his models what to wear or bring in his friends to keep them happy. But at the end of the day, the painting was his thing.

Sargent's portrait of Dr. Pozzi at Home

Sargent’s portrait of Dr. Pozzi at Home

Sargent wasn’t just about English society – he was a bit of a global citizen. He painted all sorts of people, from fancy lords to regular folks. One of the coolest male paintings is Dr. Pozzi at Home. It might seem simple – just a guy in a dressing gown (not in his best clothes or uniform) – but that red gown on a reddish backdrop really grabs your attention. And there’s this sweet painting of a little girl surrounded by big flowers – it’s like she’s lost in her own world.

Sargent and Fashion exhibition collage

The exhibition tells us about all the important people who sat for Sargent’s portraits. It’s like a who’s who of fashionable high society back then. There are some really fancy dresses on display, like the one red velvet gown worn by Mrs Charles Inches (Louise Pomeroy) 1887. Inches was a talented pianist who is said to have played duets with Sargent during sittings. She was pregnant with her third child when she sat for the portrait, and this gown was made with detachable panels to accommodate her changing body. Owing to the cost of fabrics, dresses were often adapted over time in keeping with changing fashions, or to fit another woman. 

I also love the portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon 1904. Sargent began this portrait in Venice, posing Lady Helen on the balcony of her apartment overlooking the Grand Canal. She was wearing a white satin dress, but towards the end of her sittings, Sargent scraped it all out and quickly repainted her in black. Both the dress and the pink satin wrap may be products of Sargent’s imagination rather than actual clothes. 

portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon 1904

Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon 1904

Each picture is a production: Sargent often bossed his sitters into a particular colour or shape because it’s how he wanted to paint them. He sometimes brought friends into the studio, to keep the sitters happy, or played the piano, to perk them up. This is what Leonardo Da Vinci used to do with the Gioconda sitter when painting the Mona Lisa.

portrait of La Carmencita

Portrait of La Carmencita

He also painted performers, like dancers and actors, which added even more flair to his work. There’s this awesome painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, along with her actual costume. And you can see how Sargent captured the sparkle of La Carmencita, a famous dancer. There’s even a video of Carmencita dancing with the dress next to it.

Whether you’re a history buff, an art aficionado, or just someone who loves a good story, this exhibition has something for everyone. Plus, the curators behind it all are worth a listen – their insights are as captivating as the art itself.

Sargent and Fashion – open from 22nd February to 7th July 2024 – is a great chance to see how Sargent mixed art and fashion to create some truly unforgettable portraits.

Tickets available from here.

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