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Sargent and Fashion: Trend Alert!

By Mathilda Drukier

Sargent and Fashion: Trend Alert!

The much-awaited exhibition Sargent and Fashion has finally made its way to the Tate Britain (on until the 7th of July)! Every art history student has an artist that is special to them, who they were mildly obsessed with as a teenager. Sargent, for me, plays that role. Though I love many other artists now, Sargent will always hold a special place in my heart for instigating my love of art history with his painting Lily, Lily, Rose, Carnation (1885-6). His works are painted with such delicate and mesmerising brushstrokes that bring his subjects to life (sorry to sound so cliché). He takes us into American, French and British high society through characters such as Dr Posi at his home (1881) and Madame X (1883-4), eternalised in his glowing art works. It is an exhibition for any art history and fashion fan. Sargent is an artist that was never tied to a particular group, interacting with members of the impressionists and the pre-Raphaelites to create his own unique and luminous artworks. 

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883-84, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Already, this is going to be a mildly biased review of the exhibition. However, the gallery has taken the presentation of these artworks a step further by placing the dresses that Sargent painted next to his corresponding works. Many have praised the exhibition for taking on fashion, which has often found itself left out or placed below fine arts in museum settings. The costumes are just as stunning as the works and bring so much context to the paintings and their time period. They tell us about the young American girls who would order their dresses from Paris, or the stage costume used at the globe for Lady Macbeth. Coming to this exhibition I almost felt surprised that this idea had never been done as I felt that I had a much more complete understanding of Sargent’s works and saw details I had never noticed before. 

The exhibition starts off with the striking portrait of Lady Susan Sassoon in her opera gown, presented encased next to her. The portrait is incredibly striking, and I felt so lucky to see it at it is usually in a private collection. The robe’s folds create a sense of ampleness and dimension. Though the work features a lot of black, it still incredibly fleshed out and emerges from the dark shadowy background. There is a sense of balance between the mass and delicateness of the robe just like with the original gown, which Sargent captures beautifully. This painting leads us into a room dedicated to the Sargent’s use of the colour black, showing from the start the artist’s talent and ability to create contrast through the play of light. 

Left: John Singer Sargent, Lady Sassoon (Aline de Rothschild), 1907, Oil on canvas, Private Collection.

Right: Possibly House of Wirth, Opera Cloak, before 1907, Silk taffeta and satin, net, ribbons, and lace, Private Collection.

The exhibition then continues to show a selection of high society dresses next to their wearers, displaying the trends in fashion and the contemporary obsession with getting the next new dress from Paris, mainly from the House of Worth. Followed by these various upper-class portraits, some of whom were known for their scandals, one of the portraits I was most excited to see was that of Dr Pozzi, who is presented in a red robe. I was incredibly excited to see it for the first time in person. This work plays with so many different ideas such as gender, religion, and seduction, and is incredibly enticing. It reminds the viewer of Sargent’s skill in mainly monochromatic works. My one disappointment was that Dr Pozzi’s striking red robe was not on display next to the work, even though Sargent does a good job of fleshing it out himself.


John Singer Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home, 1881, Oil on Canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

The exhibition proceeds onto the subject of performers, showing actors and dancers in their costumes. One of the dresses and works I was most excited to see was that of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889). It was interesting to see that the dress has a purple collar which Sargent diminishes in his own work, choosing instead to overload his canvas with green as Lady Macbeth surrenders her body to evil in order to obtain the crown. It is amazing to see, though, how true Sargent was to the embellishments and how he chose to bring out the gold details sometimes making them even more luminous than the original. This is what makes the exhibition so special as it shows that fashion and art go hand in hand and inspire one another. Without these striking clothes Sargent would not have had the same fame, if not for Madame X’s scandalous dress or the delicate silk and chiffon dresses of his sitters. 

It is also nice to see art galleries adapt to younger generations, appealing to the Tumblr and Pinterest crowd who have probably seen Sargent’s paintings of women pass next to that of distraught re-Raphaelite women. However, one aspect that greatly surprised me during the exhibition was the artist’s depictions of men, from dandies to imperial figures. Usually, his works are very delicate which is why I found the almost three-metres high portrait of Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry, holding a sword at the coronation, incredibly striking. Placed at the end of the room with his medals placed in front of his portrait, Stewart towers over his audience. This is incredibly unexpected after seeing mainly feminine figures throughout the exhibition.  Still Charles Stewart has a touch of flamboyance that most of Sargent’s sitters have, giving his static figure a still very lively presence.

John Singer Sargent, Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry, Carrying the Great Sword of State at the Coronation of Edward VII, August 1902, and Mr. W. C. Beaumont, His Page on That Occasion, 1904, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

These are a few of the works that stood out to me, and I look forward to going to see the exhibition again. Sargent and Fashion  is on until the 7th of July 2024, so there is plenty of time to go see it. Watch out for the gift shop, they will get you with their array of bows, necklaces, and trinkets!


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