Blown away this week by the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I hadn’t expected to be so enthralled by his work – I’d made the mistake of regarding him as a precursor to the radicalism that followed. And yet his work somehow imbibes that Modernism – to say call him unradical is like calling Mahler unradical in that Mahler stands at the end point of tonality. In his portraiture, Sargent takes the tools of Impressionism, Fauvism, even Cubsim, and them to his own end. His portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, is truly radical – the displaced subject, the framing as though accidental, the almost Brancusi-like extension of form.
But it is a simpler, gentler picture that I fell for – his portrait entitled Reconnoitering (above). Here he paints his fellow artist Ambrogio Raffele, in repose, considering, perhaps, his next subject. There is something in this portrait that reminds me of late Rembrandt – an empathy, a humility. There is something about true artists, I think, that is self-deprecating, if not before others, then before their art. True makers – those that make art rather than talking about making art, know this humility, and the truly great work within it. Here Sargent smiles at us in resignation as Rembrandt did. He waits for his subject, and while he waits, there’s a job of work he can get on with. Truly beautiful.