John Singer Sargent: A Dedicated Follower Of Fashion – Nico Kos-Earle


In 1881, the artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint his first large portrait of a male subject, the charismatic Parisian surgeon Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi. A doctor to celebrities and icons in the city of lights, he was well acquainted with the avant-garde art circles. When Sargent suggested he painted his portrait at home, dressed in a sumptuous full-length bright scarlet robe de Chambre, tied with a red cord at the waist with a provocatively dangling tassel, the doctor agreed. Dr Pozzi’s composition departs markedly from the usual formal academic portraits of medical doctors in sombre professional clothing. Depicted standing informally “at home, ” his robe is reminiscent of the monastic habit in Renaissance portraits of Catholic Popes and Cardinals, resembling a woman’s full-length tea gown. It is thrillingly seductive, and he is heart-stopping handsome. 

Dr Pozzi at Home (1881) was Sargent’s first large portrait of a male subject and the first work that Sargent exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. Acquired by Armand Hammer in 1967 and held by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles since 1991, it is currently on magnificent display at Tate Britain’s major exhibition dedicated to the portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Sargent and Fashion (22 February – 7 July 2024) presents 60 works alongside a dozen period dresses and accessories. Beautifully preserved, encased like relics behind glass, these garments were once worn by the sitters depicted in Sargent’s portraits. Crucially, they were chosen by the artist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world. In showcasing his sartorial flair, the curators of this landmark show hope to ’emphasise the artist’s ground-breaking role as a stylist’.

Unbelievably, although their preservation attests to their importance, this is the first time Sargent’s paintings have been shown with their respective garments. Working collaboratively with his sitters, the artist used Fashion (and fabric) as a powerful tool to establish their individuality. Whilst this pleasing reunion – a miracle of time travel – might have been enough, this exhibition’s curators allow us to explore the thesis and show how Sargent proclaimed his aesthetic agenda in painting material. Moving through the thematically staged rooms, we see that Sargent was not in love with Fashion but the fabric itself. One might call this show Cloth and Paint or, more poetically, Draped in Paint because it illustrates the painter’s fascination with the material through his virtuous handling of paint and its role in transforming the wearer.

The exhibition takes his love for colour as a starting point, beginning with his preference for the darkest hue, which holds all the colours: black. In this room, we find a coven of formidable women immortalised in Sargent’s iconic portraits. Front and centre is the Portrait of Madame X (1883-4), on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – which has only been shown three times in the UK since it was painted 140 years ago. Unusually, the painting was not a commission but was painted after Sargent convinced the American-born, French socialite Virginie Gautreau – famed for her show-stopping looks – to pose for a portrait so he could paint a homage to her beauty. When first shown in Paris at the Salon, it depicted the jewelled strap of her black gown slipping off her left shoulder. This detail was so abhorrent to contemporary critics (what would they think of the Haute Couture of today?!) that Sargent was convinced to restore the errant strand to its place on Madame X’s alabaster shoulder.

“In this section, we consider colour, but also how the language of Fashion changed during the 19th century and how Sargent embraced this. The colour black was undergoing a shift from being associated with mourning to being worn in a variety of contexts,” explained curator James Finch, assistant Curator, 19th Century British Art, Tate Britain, before handing over to co-curator Erica Hirschler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (

Mysterious and seductive, black is a thrilling counterpoint to exposed flesh. In pigment, it is created not through the absence of colour but the totality of colour – with many opportunities for nuance. To the left of Madame Xis is a full-scale study, a heart-shaped bodice elegantly set against the pale flesh, with no straps to interrupt the lines. “I think this is a nice summary of how Sargent was not subservient to the whims of his sitters…” says Hirschler, “He was always thinking about what would work best in the picture.”

Painting subjects in their prime, Sargent showcased beauty through the exquisite, complimentary rendering of texture and tone in his chosen garment. However, perhaps his most famous painting, which was made over two years (1885-86), Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, is divergent. Instead of a single muse, staged in delicate layers of cloth, we have two little girls in simple white dresses, surrounded by a garden in glorious bloom, their faces illuminated by lanterns that hold the colour of a sunset. The two subjects of the painting are the daughters of Sargent’s friend, the illustrator Frederick Barnard; Dolly, on the left, was 11 years old, and Polly, on the right, was seven years old. For all the attention Sargent typically gave to cloth, here we find a euphoric depiction of flora: pink roses, accents of yellow carnations and a tall white Japanese mountain lily, Lilium auratum. Dominated by green foliage, the scene has no horizon line, so we view the work as if on a level with the children – and we are wholly transported. To me, a touchstone work for so many art lovers around the world, this work represents the innocence of youth and the freedom of girlhood, free from the constraints of being perceived as an object of desire.

As if to emphasise this point, centrally placed on a free-standing wall in the centre of this room is a work that likely informed a whole film: the enigmatic face of Miss Elsie Palmer (1880-1890). One of Sargent’s most famous subjects, momentarily, I think we are looking at Emma Stone, who just won a BAFTA for – an advantageous effect of clever curation, so in tune with current popular culture.

And there he is, in the next room, the most handsome man in the painted world. Standing back on his left leg, with his head also turned to the left, his right foot poking out from the hem of his robe – provocatively – shod in a dainty red slipper decorated with white embroidery. Aside from his pale hands and face, red is intensely everywhere – repeated in the floor covering and the velvet curtains in the background, also gathered with a cord. Possibly a reference to the blood of his patients spilt in his professional activities as a surgeon; the effect is like a vortex – all our attention is on his beautiful, bearded face. The white ruffles of his shirt, peeking out at the neck and wrists, emphasise this, in addition to his long, elegant fingers. Clasping a closure at his breast with his left hand whilst loosening the cord at his left hip with his right, we are not sure if he is being coy or about to disrobe. Shockingly gorgeous and risqué – this painting must have provoked countless fainting fits when first exhibited. I did not know it was possible to fall in love like this. Painting the surgeon at home was a stroke of genius, as we are given access to intimacy. Sargent must have loved painting him – little wonder he is draped in cardinal red.

Whilst Sargent’s choice of cloth or clothing might be symbolic of each subject’s character, as the show progresses, we begin to see that it is the fabric itself that becomes the character and characterises his work. In Sargent’s final paintings, he seems to abandon Fashion and lean into the material, enfolding his subjects in swathes of organza, cotton, and silk that tend towards the abstract.

And here we come to the final question of what survives us after death. All these bodies are gone, but the occasional iconic costume is preserved. Here they are, next to the image of those who once inhabited them. It’s not ghostly but extraordinary. Shown alone, they hold a beautiful but empty space, but next to Sargent’s portraits, they bring us closer to the sitter – preserved by institutions for generations to come – seducing us until the end of time.

Words: Nico Kos-Earle Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2024

Sargent and Fashion Tate Britain (22 February – 7 July 2024)

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