Since 1979 when I first set eyes on the work of John Singer Sargent I have been a big fan. He was the epitome of the ‘artist’, painting in both oils and watercolour and drawing like a dream, apparently having little else to do throughout his rather privleged life during the Edwardian era. I was in London with my family in September-October of 1979 and my teacher had advised me to visit several galleries, one of which was the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square. I had no idea who Sargent was and had been looking at the paintings of Velasquez and Rembrandt in the National Gallery, extending my art education and dutifully went next door to see the Portrait Gallery.
If my memory is correct, we entered and almost immediately faced a staircase at the top of which was hung the large portrait of the Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit. Measuring some 84 inches square with the four girls spaced well apart on a Persian carpet with a couple of large oriental vases, it certainly stopped me in my tracks. At this stage I had not heard of Sargent but soon realised that, having entered a travelling retrospective of his work, that my life had changed forever. The portraits in this exhibition stood out for me, their colour, composition and what I can only call life made me observe other portraits with new eyes. Paintings such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Carolus Duran, Sargents teacher as well as the Boit children remain as some of my favourite paintings to this day.
In my more recent experience of Sargent’s work I had come across a very striking portrait of a Dr Pozzi, another spectacular example of his work. In the painting Dr Pozzi At Home, the doctor is portrayed full length against a red background on a red carpet wearing what looks to me like a red dressing gown. The only areas that are not red are his head and hands, his white frilled collar, shirt front and cuffs and his slippered toe peeping from beneath his robe. I love red, it is my favourite colour but this painting is not just red, it is ****ing RED as Billy Connolly would say. however, it works! Have a look at it, it is brilliant. It can be found online at- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/644345
I have just read a book with this painting on the cover. Its title is The Man In The Red Coat written by Julian barnes. Although it is said that you cant judge a book by its cover, I couldn’t resist buying it and have enjoyed the read immensely. The cast of characters include the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Marcel Proust and of course John Singer Sargent. It is essentially a potted history of the transition from the 19th to the 20th century as it concerned European society.
One passage in the book got me thinking about the fact that when we look at a painted portrait, whether historical or current, we cannot help but make assumptions about the sitter. Of course, this communication with the sitter is second hand via the eyes and the mind of the painter.
Our knowledge of the person painted may be great or none, personal or studied but our reaction to the painting will contain our prejudices and desires as well as those of the artist, whether scientific or emotional.
On page 205 of his book Mr Barnes makes what is to me a profound observation on this point and I quote:
“An artist paints a likeness, or a version or an interpretation, which celebrates the sitter during life, commemorates him or her after death, and perhaps sparks curiosity in the spectator centuries and more later. This sounds straightforward and sometimes it is. I was drawn to Dr Pozzi by the Sargent portrait, became curious about his life and work, wrote this work and still find the picture a true and dashing likeness. But it doesn’t take much for this collusion between dead painter, dead subject and spectator to go wrong. “(1.)
Mr Barnes then goes on to describe his relationship with a particular portrait, making incorrect assumptions about the sitter’s personality and having these assumptions changed by studying the man’s history. He comes to the conclusion that;
“When we look at a portrait – of an Elizabethan child, a Georgian worthy, a Victorian matron – what we are doing in part is trying to bring them back to life, to have have an ocular conversation with them, as we look at them looking back at us. And in this exchange we may mistakenly assume that their feelings are versions of our feelings – or what our feelings might be if we were in their place; also, that they are, somehow as interested in us as we are in them.“(2.)
When I look at Dr. Pozzi I see a handsome dashing man of middle years, quite well off and possibly slightly dissolute. Maybe I am projecting my desires onto him , being an elderly rather arthritic man who is not well off ,but on reading this book I find that I am close to being correct about him, although Pozzi is so much more. He is well a read celebrated gynaecologist who pioneered that discipline in France and the UK at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. He was also a brilliant surgeon bringing Dr Lister’s ideas regarding antiseptic practices into his own and other hospitals. He travelled widely and was acquainted with poets, authors, actors and artists of the day. So much more to the man than my first assumptions.
Whether one is a painter or a student of history you should find this book a fascinating look at Europe at the fin de siecle, in Paris in particular. A time and placed which has interested me since first coming across the work of Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec as a teenager.
1 and 2.. Julian Barnes. The Man In The Red Coat. Published Jonathon Cape 2019
Don James 26th September 2020