Painting Your Friends

What I learned from John Singer Sargent

Lucian Freud, the legendary British portrait painter, had a simple way to organize his day: he would have someone come and sit in the morning and then go for lunch with them. Later in the day, he would have another sitting and then go to dinner.

He was able to integrate painting and socializing into his life in part because many of the people he was painting were his friends and acquaintances. The idea always appealed to me immensely.

John Singer Sargent, the greatest portrait painter of an earlier generation, evidently had a similar idea. Recently I had the good fortune to see an amazing exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Academy in London entitled “Sargent and Friends.”

Dr. Pozzi

Many of the friends were famous and accomplished artists like Monet or writers like Robert Louis Stevenson.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The paintings were boldly drawn with color and the charcoal sketches were particularly fluid, even for Sargent. I imagine them as the source of his boldness in other commissions. He painted Ellen Terry in her Lady Macbeth costume and Stevenson pivoting dramatically toward the viewer. There was an accompanying brochure that described the story behind each face.

In particular I stood transfixed by the painting of actress Ada Rehan. Apparently, she took a lot of coaxing to come to the studio. She was an extremely sought after talent. Her power is palpable in the portrait. Somehow, he gives us the experience of another great artist. She isn’t obviously beautiful like Lady Agnew, yet, she is equally stunning.

Ada Rehan

He staged her voluptuousness with flat patterns that flow from white satin to pink flesh. Then he emphasized her rhythms with long design elements. Her sagging chin line softens her expression. She is majestically female and soft. The painting is so powerful.

Sargent’s paintings are theatrically fashionable portraits of his friends. I knew the moment I left the building this is exactly the sort of ideal day I would pursue back home in New York City.

And as fate would have it, I arrived home to an email from a new client. She has just finished writing her first novel and wanted to know if I could meet that week and perhaps arrange a sitting.

I smiled, imagining an early morning sitting followed by lunch. It was a pleasant thought to anticipate painting new friends.

The Sargent show be moving to New York in September. I will be there.

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