John Singer Sargent and the Art of Dressing to Impress

"Sargent and Fashion" is a testament to the artist's ability to inspire awe some 140 years after he put brush to canvas.

A portrait of a seated girl in a white dress hangs on a wall with two gowns in glass cases in the background
‘Miss Elsie Palmer,’ 1889-90 and two House of Worth dresses. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)

“The drawing is bad, the color atrocious, the artistic ideal low,” raged art critic Louis de Fourcaud in 1884, reviewing that year’s Paris Salon. “Certainly, if the unlucky lady who is thus exhibited could hear the comments made upon her by the passing throng, she would cut it from the walls at any cost!” The creator of the work is spared no ire by Fourcaud, denigrating him as one who “abandons true art and runs after the strange gods of notoriety and coarse sensationalism.” The painting in question would be known by the anonymizing title Madame X; its ‘unlucky’ subject, a mysterious beauty named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. The artist was one John Singer Sargent, a man who forged a prolific career as a portraitist to the upper echelons of late 19th-century society, the fruits of which are displayed to spectacular effect alongside many of the original gowns their sitters wore in “Sargent and Fashion” at Tate Britain.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Passing through, I noticed something quite unusual: without exception, all visitors to the exhibition were joined in completely silent, reverential contemplation. Such is the power of Sargent’s artistry that it has not lost its ability to inspire awe some 140 years after he put brush to canvas. Auguste Rodin, renowned sculptor of The Thinker, spoke of Sargent as being ‘the Van Dyck of our time’. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing to have been a fly-on-the-wall during the artist’s sittings with his subjects. The portraits have, as Tate’s Dr. James Finch notes, an impromptu quality to them, as though artist and sitter were animatedly in conversation: indeed a critic of The Times felt that Sargent’s painting of Mrs Hugh Hammersley (1893) “vibrates with life; never has the spirit of conversation been more actually and vividly embodied.”  Adding to this effect is the fact that many of Sargent’s sitters appear to be only momentarily stationary, as though pausing at a glittering party: this was very much by design, and the exhibition reveals how the artist controlled every detail of the compositions he painted, in a manner not wholly unlike that of a personal stylist or a stage director.

A portrait of a woman in a green gown with her arms raised hanmgs on a wall near a glass case containing the gown
Sargent’s portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and the beetle-wing dress. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)

What might Sargent and his subject have talked about during the sessions? A captivating portrait of Adèle Meyer, subject of Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children (1896) shows the philanthropist clad in finery of the French Rococo era, in imitation of François Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour: an 18th-century style gown of apricot-hued satin with contrasting velvet black touches and a gilded Louis XV chair upholstered with tapestry. Meyer and Sargent may well have discussed her forthcoming projects during the sittings, for she was to undertake research into the strenuous lives of women in the textile trade, publishing ‘The Makers of our Clothes’ in 1909 (the book is included in the exhibition). “If there is any immediate means by which legislation might diminish the evil of underpayment, it is the highest time that legislation should intervene in aid of a […] greatly suppressed class of citizens,” the book urges, and it did lead to real-world change. Regulation was introduced in the Trade Board Act of 1909, in which procedures were laid out for setting minimum wages.

SEE ALSO: On Pierre Bonnard’s Drama and Quiet Seduction

Far removed from the suppressed class of London dressmakers were the ateliers of the haute couturiers of Paris. The exhibition includes an original House of Worth gown in intricately beaded white satin, which would have cost up to $30,000 in today’s dollars, and the catalog notes that many ladies “bought more than one [Worth gown] at a time and returned year after year.” I would have loved to have seen Madame Gautreau’s décolleté evening gown of black satin and velvet with its infamous silver straps but sadly, the location of the original dress is not known. The exhibition’s gowns taken as a whole, though splendid to view up close, are admittedly somewhat subdued in their current cases – they may well have been better presented in cases of completely anti-reflective glass. The cases do, however, lead the viewer to realize how the gowns must have dazzled in their original contexts, beneath the lights of chandeliers and candles, as their wearers moved across mirrored hallways and ascended majestic winding staircases.

A highlight of the exhibition is a painting of a man wearing what the New York Herald Tribune described as a “scarlet toga”—Dr Pozzi at Home (1881), a portrait of a “princely figure of 35”—one Dr. Samuel Pozzi, a society doctor and pioneer gynecologist who famously had an affair with Sarah Bernhardt and who would later be assassinated by one of his patients. Pozzi, referred to by Sargent as a “brilliant creature,” stands before an entranceway flanked by red curtains, as though bidding us to cross the threshold, but his gaze scrutinizes a distant horizon, his expression is impenetrable. He’s not dressed to receive company, wearing a red dressing gown over what appears to be a nightshirt.

Why red? In her article The Culture of Dress, Pamela A. Parmal notes that the color may subtly refer to the red robes of Pozzi’s profession; others have noted that it was a way of showing Pozzi off-duty, relaxed and at ease, at home, in a departure from the only color men of the 19th Century really wore: black. The portrait reveals a startling, arresting depiction of a remarkable person. In the book The Man in the Red Coat, English author Julian Barnes eulogizes Pozzi as “rational, scientific, progressive and constantly inquisitive,” stating that he “filled his life with medicine, art, books, travel, society, politics […].” Again, the viewer is left thinking about how interesting it would have been to hear the conversation between Sargent and his subjects during portrait sittings.

A portrait of a girl in a yellow dress hangs on a green wall with the actual yellow dress in a glass case in the foreground
‘La Carmencita,’ c.1890 and her costume. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)

In 1885, the year that Sargent visited Claude Monet in Giverny to discuss color and pigment, Oscar Wilde penned an essay entitled The Philosophy of Dress, in which he stated that “Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal.” “Sargent and Fashion,” if anything, attests to the remarkable staying power of particular aspects of fashion. Presented with a certain attitude and through the lens of an artist’s remarkable talents, fashion urges the viewer to consider the wearer’s interior world. This is true of portraiture, photography and other art forms that include an element of stage direction. Sargent captured the Belle Époque in all its show-stopping glories and contradictions; its characters, wealthy beyond measure and enjoying great privilege, lived lives as transient as the bubbles in their coupes de Champagne. Through these portraits, they speak once more.

Sargent and Fashion” is on view at Tate Britain through July 7.

John Singer Sargent and the Art of Dressing to Impress