Fashions change but his portraits prevail: Sargent and Fashion at the Tate Britain

3 March 2024, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, Costume Society News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Sargent and Fashion.

Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Sargent and Fashion’ explores the complex relationship between painting and fashion in the portraiture of the celebrated artist John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925).

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, and the 60 works of art include pieces from the MFA and Tate’s extensive collections as well as some rare loans. Of interest to Costume Society members, the exhibition also includes more than a dozen period dresses and accessories (with some reproductions), as worn by his sitters. In addition, for the very first time, a group of five Sargent masterpieces are reunited with his sitters’ original period garments. Throughout the exhibition, garments are on show next to the portraits in which they are worn.

‘Sargent and Fashion’ is curated by James Finch, Tate Britain’s Assistant Curator of 19th Century British Art and Erica Hirshler, MFA Boston’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings. With Chiedza Mhondoro, Assistant Curator British Art, Tate Britain; Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of Drawings, Musée d’Orsay; and Pamela A. Parmal, Chair and David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts Emerita, MFA, Boston.

Working collaboratively with his sitters, who were members of fashionable high society at the turn of the decade, Sargent worked as a stylist, regularly choosing outfits and manipulating fabrics. As such, Sargent used dress and fashion to establish the individuality of his sitters as well as project his own aesthetic agenda.

“Sargent’s career coincided with the rise of couture, which he was particularly close to during his early career in Paris, but which was also worn by his British and American sitters. To have one’s portrait painted by Sargent was to invite scrutiny and attention, and periodicals described women choosing their dresses on the basis of whether they would paint well or not. At the same time, the art press was often critical of new fashions in portraiture (something Sargent was sometimes on the receiving end of), so there was a certain complexity to the role of painting fashionable society. Sargent, and his sitters, were part of a dynamic in which fashion and portraiture were all bound up as part of a public presentation. What distinguished Sargent from many other portraitists, however, was how alive he was to the opportunities that fashionable dress presented to him as an artist. He was very opinionated about what his sitters wore (often vetoing their initial choices!) and would pin or drape their garments, acting rather like an art director at a fashion shoot today, changing details as he saw fit. He was on a tightrope of having to manage his sitters’ expectations and make them look fashionable enough to please them and get favourable notice at public exhibitions, without being subservient or forfeiting his creative freedom. He also accumulated a collection of garments (such as a shawl which is included in the exhibition), which he would deploy as props, and we see that later on in his career Sargent returns to these over and over again, making them the real protagonists of his paintings,” James Finch, Curator said.

The exhibition opens with the portrait Lady Sassoon (1907), on display in the UK for the first time in 26 years, displayed next to a black taffeta opera cloak worn by the sitter that has never been shown before. Finch observes that: “We are fortunate to be displaying garments which were actually worn by the sitters alongside the portraits themselves, meaning visitors can see for themselves how Sargent worked- how he translated those garments onto canvas, and the ways in which he emphasised or elided certain elements in order to achieve his artistic aims. For example, the first painting you see in the show is Lady Sassoon, 1907, depicted in a black silk taffeta opera cloak which has a striking pink silk lining visible at the sleeve opening and along the front edge, creating a dramatic contract against the rich black. The painting is exhibited alongside the original opera cloak the sitter wore, allowing visitors to see how Sargent would have had to fold and pin the black silk taffeta in a particular way in order to achieve the sinuous trail of pink lining,”

The second room opens with the iconic painting of socialite Virginie Amélie Gautreau, Madame X (1883-4), that famously caused a scandal at the Salon since Mme Gautreau was depicted with one diamond strap falling from her shoulder. Later the strap was repainted and here, both the Tate and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s versions are on show. This work has only been on show in the UK three times since it was painted 140 years ago. 

In one of the central rooms, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) is exhibited alongside the emerald green dress and cloak embroidered with beetle wings originally worn by Ellen Terry (1847-1928) when she played Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1888. Costume Society members may well be familiar with this piece, however, it is the first time that the National Trust has loaned this item for a show such as this.

Finch recognises the significance of this, remarking: “Ellen Terry’s fabulous beetle-wing dress, which is displayed for the first time alongside Sargent’s painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in this exhibition, is another highlight, particularly because of the complexity of the garment, and the evident licence that Sargent took in painting it - due in part, it is believed, to the suggestion of Edward Burne-Jones that Sargent add more blue to the painting!”

Hung in the same room is La Carmencita (1890), depicting Spanish dancer Carmen Dauset Moreno, who performed in music halls across the United States, Europe, and South America. For the first time, visitors have the chance to view this stunning portrait next to the dancer’s original sparkling yellow satin costume and as an added bonus, adjacent to these items, visitors can watch footage of Moreno performing in 1894, credited as Thomas Edison’s first motion picture depicting a woman.

Finch reveals: “Sargent’s portrait of Carmen Dauset Moreno, who performed as Carmencita, is displayed alongside her yellow silk satin costume. Its heavy fabric is overlaid with gauze net and embroidered with beads, spangles and sequins. Displaying the garment alongside the painting shows just how well Sargent captured the yellow as well as the sparkles with his flicks and dabs of white paint. It is thought that the dress may have belonged to Sargent rather than the sitter, or if it was hers he never returned it after the portrait was painted.”

Finch adds: “In addition to these examples, there are various additional garments and accessories either depicted in Sargent’s portraits; which were owned by Sargent or his sitters; or which bear close resemblance to garments depicted by Sargent, and thus help us to understand Sargent’s decisions and process.” These include Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’ Abernon (1904) and Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy) (1887) juxtaposed with a red velvet evening dress. The regalia Star of the Order of the Garter and Londonderry Garter worn by Charles Stewart, sixth Marquess of Londonderry at the Coronation of Edward VII (1904) is displayed. Other period garments include Mrs Montgomery Sears (1899) shown alongside Mrs Sears’ own dresses, the velvet gown pictured in Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy) (1887) and the House of Worth fancy-dress costume worn by Sybil Sassoon in 1922.

On the curation of ‘Sargent and Fashion’, Finch shares: “We were definitely led by the surviving garments and matching them up with the corresponding portraits, which provided the foundation for the show. From there, it was a question of thinking about the entirety of Sargent’s career and which of his portraits best fitted the themes and aims of the exhibition. In some cases, these were portraits for which there are compelling accounts of how sartorial choices were factored into the painting of the portrait (as in the portraits of Eleanora Iselin and Graham Robertson), or in others because of the manifest resourcefulness and impact of these choices (as in Madame X or Dr Pozzi at Home). As the themes and structure of the exhibition coalesced- taking in, for instance, themes such as expression, performance, and status- more additional works suggested themselves… The exhibition originally scheduled for an earlier date, was postponed due to the pandemic, which necessitated the renegotiation of loans. The outcome, however, was that the greater lead-in time provided more opportunity for research, and the addition of paintings and other objects which had not been on the checklist at an earlier stage.”

In 2024, “there has been a growing awareness, amongst Sargent scholars, of the role of fashion in his work, and the persistence of this theme throughout his career as a portraitist and number of surviving garments make this a compelling new perspective on Sargent’s work which has not been explored in an exhibition before. The organisers are, of course, aware of the important work on the connections between art and fashion as explored in the cases of numerous other artists, which has been drawn on in organising this exhibition. At the same time, there are distinctive qualities to Sargent’s career specifically which merit the focus on this theme in his work in particular.

It so happens that the several years during which this exhibition was in development have coincided with other events which only enhance the topicality of the exhibition: the growth of social media, and Instagram in particular, and online meetings- formats which encourage reflection on how we ‘frame’ ourselves and our public profiles; a rise in interest in the period in which Sargent worked (see, for instance, the tv programme The Gilded Age and the Met Gala of the same theme- both of which were rich in Sargent tributes); and even a coronation in the UK, which lends a new relevance to the painting in the exhibition of Lord Londonderry holding the great sword of state at the coronation of Edward VII.”

When asked to share his favourite piece, Finch says: “This is such a difficult question to answer! Many of Sargent’s greatest portraits are those of subjects he took the initiative to approach as he particularly wanted to paint them, not the ones who came to him wanting a commission. For example Madame X, his portrait of Graham Robertson, and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (which is shown at Tate alongside the incredible dress she wears in the painting). Each of these portraits is a masterpiece which it is impossible to imagine being painted by anyone else, and I think these portraits all communicate something fundamental about the singularity of Sargent’s vision. As a slightly different example I’d highlight Mrs Hugh Hammersley, which was a commissioned portrait but one in which Sargent again created something unique. Returning to that living quality, Hammersley is perched on a Louis XVI sofa but looks as though she is almost in the act of sitting down, or about to stand up, while her head is equally vividly painted (one critic wrote that it ‘vibrates with life; never has the spirit of conversation been more actually and vividly embodied). Her dress, meanwhile, was a cherry coloured evening gown of a bright colour that had only recently been made possible through innovations in synthetic dyes (a swatch of the dress will be on display alongside the painting). Sargent was criticised at the time for painting colours inappropriate in grand portraiture, and critics predicted that this portrait would become obsolete once fashions changed. It is another answer to the question of why Sargent was such a master, to say that fashions changed but this portrait transcends them, and that it endures as great painting.”

Sargent and Fashion runs until 7 July 2024.

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