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Review: Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain 

Sargent and Fashion installation view with Lady Sassoon,1907 and Opera cloak, c.1895 at Tate Britain 2024. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan).

John Singer Sargent might be one of the most beloved artists of the Edwardian era, and the number of people crowded around each painting on view as part of Tate Britain’s exhibit Sargent and Fashion stands as testament to that. As the title suggests, this exhibit examines the importance of fashion in Sargent’s portraits as well as the ways that Sargent manipulated clothing and accessories in his artwork in a way that seemingly reveals his sitters’ whole self: their likeness, their experiences, and their personalities. This exhibit brings together nearly sixty of Sargent’s portraits along with original pieces of clothing and accessories, providing a glimpse into Sargent’s process of transposing clothes from reality onto the canvas. 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) became one of the most sought-after portrait artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early in his career, Sargent’s true passion was for landscape painting; however, portrait commissions were far more profitable and helped Sargent promote himself as an artist. Portraits were also something for which Sargent had genuine skill. His portraits seem to portray both body and spirit on the canvas, distinguishing him from other portrait artists who often only managed to capture the sitter’s still, physical form. Even the most stiff, authoritative figures Sargent painted seem to have cracks in their façade that reveal something much softer and lighter beneath their surface. Their souls seem to stir beneath the layers of paint, revealing the sitters’ inner thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and desires.

It is not necessarily the fashion (n.) in these portraits which make them so significant, but Sargent’s ability to fashion (v.) his sitters in a way that captures their likeness as well as their character. These two definitions of fashion co-exist in this exhibit, offering a new take on Sargent’s artwork that goes beyond simply what can be seen on the canvas. One way that this exhibit succeeded was in its devotion to expanding the concept of fashion as it is entwined with an individual’s identity; however, it was unclear whether or not this was the curators’ intention. 

Each gallery is organized around a theme or motif such as women wearing black, portraits that challenge or subvert gender norms of the period, fashion in performance, and so on. The exhibit begins with Sargent’s portraits of high-society figures, with a special emphasis on the luxury clothing and accessories featured in each painting. Framed by the doorway into the second room is one of the exhibit’s showstoppers, the notorious Madame X - not Madonna, but the portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau which scandalized viewers when it was first unveiled at the 1884 Salon in Paris. Sargent painted Gautreau, an American socialite well-known for her striking beauty, in a long black gown with a plunging neckline held up by thin straps. Sargent left Paris soon after this exhibition, his career sullied by Madame X’s ‘indecent’ fashion. Yet to this day, this portrait remains one of his most famous works. 

John Singer Sargent, Dr Pozzi at Home,1881. Oil paint on canvas; 201.6 x 102.2 cm. The Armand Hammer Collection, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

The exhibit moves through various social classes and settings, showcasing the variety of fashions typical during the period. About halfway through the exhibit, there is a distinct shift from high-society Edwardian fashion to far more relaxed portraits framed within a pastoral setting. These paintings blend together Sargent’s skill as a portrait artist with his love of landscape painting, producing lush scenes where figures and their clothes melt into their surroundings. The figures in Group with Parasols (A Siesta), for example, are almost indistinguishable from the foliage they lie in. 

Throughout the exhibit, the wall text guides viewers’ attention to the clothing and accessories worn in each painting and highlights contrasting details between what can be seen in the painting and, when applicable, the original materials on display nearby. The exhibit featured hand fans, a top hat, an Indian shawl, a lace collar, and several original gowns—some of which actually belonged to the sitters depicted in the portraits. In cases where original clothing or accessories were not available, photographs of the sitter were displayed nearby so viewers could compare the sitter’s actual appearance with how Sargent chose to portray them. One of the most dramatic examples of Sargent fashioning his sitters is in the comparison of Lady Helen Vincent’s portrait with her photograph reproduced nearby. In the photograph, she wears an elegant lacy gown that cascades down her body with elegant ruffles. In the portrait, however, Sargent painted her in a black dress with a fluffy pink satin wrap draped around her shoulders. It is unclear whether this decision revealed how Sargent viewed her or if it was purely for aesthetic purposes, but it does expose Sargent’s dedication to matching what he saw in his head to what he painted on the canvas. 

When a full, original piece of clothing was featured alongside a portrait, the effect was pretty spectacular. Each gown is worn by an invisible body contained within large glass boxes. It was often difficult to examine the details of each costume without also glimpsing my own reflection and everything in the room behind me. The most impressive display was the presentation of Sargent’s portrait of Lady Macbeth alongside the original beetle wing dress worn by Ellen Terry in an 1888 production of Macbeth. These two iconic items presented side-by-side was one of the highlights of the exhibit. 

As a whole, the exhibit is well worth seeing simply for the pleasure of viewing so many of  Sargent’s portraits side-by-side one another. While the element of fashion in this exhibit was interesting, it often shied away from discussing anything particularly meaningful about fashion as it relates to larger themes and ideas surrounding Sargent’s work. Occasionally, clothing was discussed as separate from the people wearing them while simultaneously acting as a signifier of individuals’ identities, creating some confusion about what this exhibit was necessarily for or against. But overall, this exhibit was a delightful dive into the extravagant, complex world of Edwardian fashion and Sargent’s tendencies to fashion his sitters in a way that captures their whole selves.

'Sargent and Fashion' is on at Tate Britain until 7 July.

Tate Collective members (25 and under) go for £5.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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