Friday, April 3, 2015

"Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron" by John Singer Sargent


Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, oil 60" x 69" by John Singer Sargent (1881)

This painting is currently at the National Portrait Gallery in London, as part of the Sargent show "Portraits of Artists and Friends". It's up until May 25, 2015 in London and then it travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (opening June 30th, 2015).  90 of Sargent's works are being displayed; many are usually in private or out-of-the-way locations, so it's very special to see a grouping like this.

I was lucky enough to see the show with my artist friend Ilaria Rosselli del Turco (click on her link to the right of the blog text). Ilaria is a wonderful companion for general museum adventures. She sees paintings in a somewhat different way than I do and it's a treat to bounce ideas off such an intelligent and talented person.

I should write about the entire Sargent show but since it takes me forever to write a blogpost these days, I think I will just focus on this painting, which I was particularly eager to see. It's usually in Boise, Idaho, I believe. (Another big draw for me was Sargent's Portrait of Dr. Pozzi. The handsome doctor deserves his own blog post, maybe I will get to that one of these days.)

Marie-Louise was 11, Edouard was 16, and John Singer Sargent was 25 years old the year this painting was created. The painting was created over a stretch of several months; Marie-Louise said later that she remembered eighty-three sittings. (I've heard various figures for the sittings, but, still...!) As you might imagine, the sessions didn't always go smoothly. Marie-Louise later wrote that she and her brother had argued with the artist about such matters as what clothing to wear and the way her hair was to be arranged.

I love this painting for so many reasons. That fiery red background and the sharp dark silouhette of the boy's suit are theatrical and dramatic. The complexity of the whites and creamy halftones in the dress are a triumph of skill. The rich orientalism of the Persian carpet adds a sense of mystery and luxury. Marie-Louise's arched hand is marvelously painted and manages to be graceful and childish at the same time. I stared at it at the Museum for a long time. The bracelet is wonderfully impastoed, set in carefully and confidently over the softly brushed flesh of the wrist.

Their expressions are restrained and ambiguous. They're not exactly happy to be sitting there, and they look like they might say something rude to that young painter who was taking forever to paint them, though I'll bet children were a little better behaved back then, so they bit their tongues. Edouard seems to be thinking especially dark thoughts, probably about all the better things he had to do with his time.

Think about how very different this painting is from a portrait of two siblings that might have been painted today by any number of professional painters. Maybe this is just an aspect of being American, or maybe it's an aspect of growing up in the 19th century.  American portrait painters today almost always portray relentlessly cheery, sunny and upbeat American children.  I don't know whether it's because the American clients prefer cheery children, or whether the artists themselves are cheery, or we are all eating too much sugar, but that does seem to be the norm. These two are solemn and serious.

The thing that strikes me when I see Sargent's paintings in person - in photos also, but more strongly in person - is his strong sense of design and composition. I've converted the photo of the painting to black and white and then posterized it to a few values so that you can get a sense of what I'm thinking.

Sargent has done things like value massing and making those masses unequally sized. And can you see that jagged diagonal that runs left to right? I got very excited about this at the museum. I did a crude sketch below to show you (red line). Once I saw left to right wave movement in this painting, I started seeing it in some other Sargent paintings, too. It's not only a way to connect two shapes in a way that's subtle; it's also a way to include the energy of the diagonal with the rather static shapes of the children.

There's just much to learn from a Sargent in addition to the way he puts down paint.