I was fortunate to be able to catch - just a few days before it ends on May 25th - the National Portrait Gallery`s brilliant exhibition "Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends".
As a would-be portraitist I am fascinated by the giants of portraiture and John Singer Sargent is right up there for me. Not a difficult decision therefore for me to arrange a one-day stopover in London en route back to Tokyo.
Arranged in nine small rooms it is packed with quality work, many of which rarely see the light of day.
But there was one work in particular whose magnetic intensity had me returning to eyeball it time and again during the course of my visit: "Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron". This work was not known to me - perhaps not surprising as it is being exhibited apparently for the first time in 100 years.
It is a large work measuring 1.5 by 1.7 metres, and exerts on the observer a spellbinding fascination - or at least it did on me, and plenty others around me that day.
Here displayed are all of the characteristics that make Sargent such a stand-out in the pantheon of portraitists: the virtuosity of his brushwork, juxtaposing areas of uncanny realistic detail (the face and braceleted hand of the girl) with a more painterly impressionistic treatment (the persian carpet). The unusual composition. The bravura contrast of colour between the darks (the black of the boy`s outfit, the deep shadowed magenta of the background drape, the subtle olive greens and grey blues of the carpet upon which the two figures are stiffly seated) and the lights (the hands and faces, the brilliance of the white silk taffeta dress). The overall impression of freshness and spontaneity that belies the painstaking reality of the painting process.
Much discussion has ensued from commentators about the `creepiness` of the image and the haunting quality that imbues an adult sensibility upon these two children.
Apparently the young lady featured, Marie-Louise (who grew up to become a well-known historian and authoress) later commented that the multitude of sittings forced upon them by Sargent (presumably also at the insistence of the commissioner, their playwright father Edouard Pailleron) -some 83! - along with arguments about what to wear had driven the two to distraction. You can just imagine what caused the supercilious petulance in Edouard`s expression - the cramp setting in in his right arm and shoulder as he twists his elbow to catch the light on the underside of his hand. The rigidity of the little girl`s pose, the fingers of her left hand outstretched as if for balance as her toes just manage to touch the floor - and that knowingness in her face, just the merest hint of an ironic smile. The painter himself who was apparently so frustrated by the children`s intransigence and moodiness he hurled a piece of furniture out of the window upon finally finishing the painting.
Many of us have experienced similar things from our own childhoods. I remember sulkily refusing to smile for the family photographer who was doing his utmost to make me grin at about the age of six, and on another occasion the hard stone steps upon which I (and both of my brothers) were forced to sit for what seemed hours during pastel portraits Mum and Dad had commissioned from a street artist in Venice.
Whatever the reasons behind it, both of the children fix their eyes upon the beholder with an uncanny - almost unsettling - intensity.
This has echoes in another of Sargent`s paintings of children (one which I have seen on a couple of occasions before but not featured in this exhibition) "The daughters of Edward Darley Boit" which resides at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Another exquisite and innovative rendering of the particular world of childhood.
Another incredibly atmospheric piece that draws you in and keeps you staring. The short film below by the Senior Curator of the Museum tells you more...
Both of these masterpieces brilliantly capture the singularity of childhood - how each child occupies their own space, their own particular reality, so that they appear somewhat alone even in the context of a group.
I hesitate in this august company to add one of my own compositions, in this case painted from a photograph supplied by an ex-colleague and friend. In this painting the children are interacting in a cute way - it has none of the intensity of the Sargent (and certainly none of the bravura brushwork - oh that I could capture 5 % of Sargent`s genius!) but it nevertheless found an appreciative home.