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Sargent & Fashion

Updated: Jun 15

This exhibition at Tate Britain explores the importance of costume in John Singer Sargent’s portraits of members of high society in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The claim is that he carefully stage managed his sitters’ clothing in order to reveal personality and identity but I don’t think these portraits reveal much about the sitters’ individual identity. I’m sure all portrait painters make decisions about what sitters wear, how they are posed, what the lighting is like, everything in fact. This is especially true when an artist achieves the kind of status Sargent did: I expect his clients put themselves entirely in his capable hands, knowing that they would be transformed into delicious confections of satin and silk. Once he hit his stride in the late 1880s, aristocratic women and businessmen’s wives were lining up to be turned into a typical Sargent lady: long-limbed and pink-cheeked, with wasp waist and decolletage, swathed in yards of expensive fabric and posed in sumptuous surroundings.

Having wandered through room after room of huge paintings of rich people looking down their noses, it was a relief to look at something different, and I found the last paintings in this exhibition a visual feast. Smaller-scale paintings of friends idling in the sunshine, lazing under parasols, sprawled on the grass, with no hint of formality or self-consciousness. These seemingly casual compositions are full of life and energy. Faces are obscured or ill-defined, the sitters are merely forms in the landscape, giving Sargent the opportunity to paint shapes and textures sculpted by sunlight. He really was a brilliant painter.

Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain until 7 July 2024.

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