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John Singer Sargent

The deeply educated John Singer Sargent

The painter’s portraits of his diverse circle of polymathic friends

London

This show at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London, of work by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) focuses on his portraits, particularly those of his friends in the arts. Since most of these paintings were done out of friendship, they are more experimental than his formal, commissioned works. His friends are often depicted painting, singing or acting.

The curator is Richard Ormond, a co-author of the Sargent catalogue raisonné and a grandson of the artist’s sister. He points out that “as a painter Sargent is well known, but Sargent the intellectual, the connoisseur of music, the literary polymath, is something new”. Sargent tended to be on the move, and the show will follow him from Paris to London to Boston. It also tracks his travels across the Alps to Italy and his visits to the English countryside.

Key loans include two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, which will be shown together for the first time. One painting, from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, shows the novelist striding away from his wife (Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885). Another work, in the collection of the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, depicts him relaxing in an armchair (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887).

There will be more conventional portraits of Auguste Rodin from the Musée Rodin, Paris, and Claude Monet from the National Academy Museum, New York, along with the evocative picture Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, 1885, from the Tate in London, capturing the Impressionist painter at work en plein air. The NPG will also show its own Sargent picture of the American writer Henry James from 1913.

Ormond points out that Sargent is sometimes accused of being superficial, but this show will present him as deeply cultured: “Our exhibition challenges the conventional view of Sargent as a bravura artist of the old school, of limited imagination and originality. He was actually a painter in the vanguard of contemporary movements in the arts—in music, in literature and the theatre.”

The show is supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the Sargent Exhibition Supporters Group.

• Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery, London, 12 February-25 May, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 30 June-4 October