Sargent and Fashion, Tate Britain: confirms suspicions that Sargent is superficial

A woman stands to the left of the picture, looking up at John Singer Sargent’s Madame X at Tate Britain
John Singer Sargent’s Madame X at Tate Britain - Eddie Mulholland for the Telegraph

Like a far-off celebrity glimpsed at a party, the star of Tate Britain’s new exhibition, John Singer Sargent’s Madame X (1883-84), appears at a distance, perfectly framed by a doorway, sending hearts aflutter. Marmoreal, lavender-tinged skin; a nose as sharp as a ninja’s throwing star; that sumptuous black bodice held up only by a pair of chains: her features and attire are unmistakable.

A silver sliver representing a crescent moon adorns her hair, as if she were a latter-day Diana, lunar goddess of the hunt. Yet, Diana was also associated with chastity, and this French banker’s American wife is hardly demure. In an earlier version of the painting, one of those straps slipped suggestively from a shoulder. Was her satin-and-velvet dress about to fall?

Chastened by the outcry when his portrait of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau became the success de scandale of the 1884 Paris Salon, Sargent adjusted her eveningwear; in 1916, he sold the painting, which he considered “the best thing I have done”, to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If this makes him sound more couturier than painter, so be it: Sargent and Fashion explicitly examines his suave images of the turn-of-the-20th-century elite “through the lens of dress”. This is a show about “the sensuous sheen of silks and satins” as much as brushwork. Labels wax lyrical about cherry silk velvet and pearl-embroidered bengaline; elaborate fans and beaded, feathery hair ornaments – as well as around a dozen spectacular dresses – appear alongside his society portraits. Sargent’s mesmerising, eldritch Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) is accompanied by her extraordinary costume, fashioned from blue tinsel and metallic-green beetle wings.

In Tate’s telling, Sargent – a cosmopolitan yet shy, ambiguous figure, who relished painting the surgeon Samuel Pozzi wearing a crimson gown with Turkish slippers, but himself dressed conventionally, in a banker’s suits – was a “stylist” and “stage director” and “artistic director of public performances”, versed in haute couture’s coded nuances, and capable of suggesting, with liquid brushstrokes, the properties of expensive fabrics. “The coat”, he told one stick-thin sitter, who complained about having to pose in a long Chesterfield in high summer, “is the picture.” Appearance was everything. Hence, the curators’ belief in his appeal for our “image-making” social-media age.

Sargent's Da Pozzi at Home (1881)
Sargent's Da Pozzi at Home (1881)

It’s a seductive vision, in which everyone looks exquisite – and, for a while, it feels fun to be swept up in the razzmatazz of the Belle Époque, the Gilded Age’s opulence. There’s scant hectoring about bygone attitudes, little engagement with identity politics; just escapism, in the manner of a period drama or fancy-dress ball.

Yet, a one-dimensional argument – that Sargent artfully manipulated his sitters’ “sartorial choices” for pictorial ends – cannot vanquish old concerns about his superficiality.

Is there anything to his art other than sheen and sparkle? Of course, his business was flattery. But, as the high-society parade passes before our eyes (here, Lady Playfair; there, the Countess of Rocksavage), the collective vanity appals. Compare Sargent’s portrait of a rich mother and daughter with a photograph of them sitting for him in Boston: in the painting, they might pass for sisters. Sargent could be a toady; his skilful pictures gloze.

Mrs Hugh Hammersley (1892) by Sargent
Mrs Hugh Hammersley (1892) by Sargent - Sargent, John Singer (1856-1925)

Eventually, the surfeit of sweetness sickens. It’s hard to refute DH Lawrence’s assessment of Sargent’s portraits as “nothing but yards and yards of satin from the most expensive shops, having some pretty head propped up on the top.” Strip away the trimmings – the frills and flounces, silk bows and puffed sleeves – and what’s left?

From Feb 22; information: