Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, 1881
If anything is going to make you want to step up in the glamour stakes, it’s the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s paintings of decadently dressed society dames, which appear among the 70 portraits in the show, including those of his well-known friends and contemporaries in the arts.
When John Singer Sargent’s saucy portrait of ‘Madame X’ appeared in the Paris salon of 1884 it caused an uproar. The young socialite, Virginie Gautreau, was dressed in a scandalously revealing black gown that was deemed inappropriate for a married woman. Rumours soon began to spread about her infidelities and both Sargent and his sitter were disgraced. With his career in France now in tatters, he fled to England where he successfully re-established himself as the country’s leading portrait painter.
The exhibition brings together a group of portraits of his friend and patron Edouard Pailleron – a bohemian Parisian writer – and his wife and children, which are now scattered in collections in Paris, Washington and Iowa. And the only two surviving portraits Sargent painted of Robert Louis Stevenson are displayed together for the first time since they were painted in the 1880s.
Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, by John Singer Sargent
Sargent loved the stage and the exhibition includes his spectacular portrait of actress Ellen Terry in her beetle-wing gown as Lady Macbeth. There are also paintings of celebrated poet William Butler Yeats and Edwin Booth, a famous Shakespearean actor – but better known as the brother of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
The fabulously frothy rendering of La Carmencita, the wild Spanish dancer, with her shimmering yellow satin gown, is the one that most makes us want to don a proper frock and make like Hollywood’s A-listers on the awards season red carpets.
La Carmencita, by John Singer Sargent, 1890
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is curated by Richard Ormond, grandson of Sargent’s sister, and runs until May 25 2015.