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Exquisite pairing of Sargent and Fashion at the Tate

By Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent, Timeless Travels Magazine

John Singer Sargent Lady Sassoon, 1907. Oil paint on canvas. Private Collection. Image © Houghton Hall

A taffeta opera cloak from late nineteenth century House of Worth, with dashing pink satin lining glimpsed beneath its black folds, alongside Sargent’s beautiful painting of its wearer. The scandalous painting of Madame X in slinky black gown and strap slipping off her shoulder. The yellow-gold costume worn by the music hall dancer, La Carmencita, in all its sparkling satin showiness. And the extraordinary beetle-wing-strewn costume worn by the actress Ellen Terry for her portrait as Lady Macbeth in 1889.

Four examples of paintings and garments from Tate Britain’s major new exhibition, Sargent and Fashion. The opening gallery of this dazzling show makes a statement of intent. The opera cloak hangs next to the portrait of Lady Sassoon (Aline de Rothschild) wearing it, a pairing that encapsulates the theme of the show: that the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) worked rather like a stylist would today (stylist being a 21st century term) in fashioning the image his sitters would present to the world through sartorial choices. Choices, the exhibition makes clear, that were not always the sitter’s own.

Sargent was the go-to (if you could afford it), the most fashionable portrait painter of the time. “He took fashion as a raw material, bending it to his ends,” said Erica Hirshler of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, co-curator with James Finch, Tate Britain. Sargent’s works are free of the stiffness and formality that characterises the majority of his contemporaries’ paintings, she added.

Tate Britain and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston make fitting collaborators on the exhibition for the American painter claimed both institutions as his “home”. Almost 60 of Sargent’s paintings are exhibited, including major portraits that rarely travel, as well as works drawn from Tate and MFA’s extensive collections. Plus, there are more than a dozen period dresses, costumes and accessories, many of which were worn by his sitters. Several are reunited for the first time with Sargent’s portraits of their wearers.

Black on black was very much a characteristic of Sargent’s work. He loved to explore how light plays on black. Yet, in his time black was largely associated with mourning wear.

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1883-84, Oil paint on canvas. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fun, 1916 (16.53). Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

Madame X 1883-4, Sargent’s iconic painting of socialite Virginie Amélie Gautreau, which caused a huge stir at the Salon by salaciously showing Mme Gautreau with one diamond strap falling from her bare shoulder, shows how black had by then become chic as evening wear.

Sargent deliberately planned a sensational portrait, one that emphasised the young woman’s daring personal style – from the unconventional pose of her head shown in sharp profile, emphasising her nose, to her décolleté dress - hoping to enhance his reputation. However, at the Paris Salon of 1884 the portrait received more ridicule than praise. He painted a second portrait with the strap back in place, but the damage to his reputation was done. Sargent decided to move to Britain.

But back to the cloak. Hanging in its case, it is static, lifeless inevitably, there’s no getting round that, but the chance to see the cloak and compare it to the adjacent 1907 portrait of Lady Sassoon wearing it, her ensemble completed by pearls and ostrich feathers and all, is a real pleasure. Above all, to have pointed out to me just how much Sargent manipulated the fall of the fabric, pinning and tucking to reveal the exuberant lining - making the finished portrait zing.

Sargent was renowned for the ability to bring his subjects to life, but here, from the gorgeous first painting to the last, it is clear how he used fashion and costume as a powerful tool to bring further life to an image.

He loved exploring the qualities of black and white in his work; even so he excelled at painting gowns of every colour. Take Carmensita’s yellow dress, for example. Sargent’s 1890 portrait of the 21-year-old Spanish dancer standing proud, hand on hip, ready for performance, captures the exhilaration of wearing the gown. Her dress is not accurately painted; his brushwork deliberately blurs the details of the bell-shaped skirt making it seem full of movement. The Thomas Edison film clip, 1894, Carmencita Dancing the bolero solo is a nice touch.

Above, left: John Singer Sargent La Carmencita, 1890, Oil paint on canvas. Paris, musée d'Orsay. Photo © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Above, right: Costume worn by La Carmencita, c.1890, Silk, net, beads, sequins. Private Collection © Houghton Hall

After moving to London from Paris, Sargent became part of an aesthetic and artistic circle in Chelsea. Among the professional performers he now mixed with – and chose to portray, which allowed him to indulge his taste for visual spectacle - was the celebrated actor, Ellen Terry, who was known for her Shakespearean roles. After attending the opening night of Macbeth in 1888, he resolved to paint her as Lady Macbeth. But he chose not to depict a scene from the play; rather, he created something new, something incredibly vibrant. Having her hold the crown above her head so dramatically allows us to see the full beauty of the stage costume in all its blue-green beetle-wing-embellished magnificence. I’d not expected to see that in the show and it caught my breath seeing it alongside Sargent’s famous painting. That pairing alone is worth going to the show for.

This show has many stories in it, stories of the personalities, the sitters, the costume making, the epoch, and I learnt a lot. For one thing, I learnt that “costume” is the term for clothing worn for performance, not for those worn in everyday life.

For me, the four examples chosen here capture the spirit of this exhibition, its joie de vivre.

But seeing this collection of paintings and garments together works on many levels. Not only does it lend new light on Sargent, his eye, and his abilities as a portrait painter, but it also offers a brilliant opportunity to see so many of Sargent’s exquisite works all at once.


Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain

Millbank, London SW1P 4RG, UK

Showing until: 7 July 2024


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