Art music

'Art Music: J.S. Sargent as Listener, Patron and Practitioner'. A talk given as part of 'Sargent and the Arts of his Time', National Portrait Gallery, London, 17 April 2015

From February to May 2015 the National Portrait Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent entitled 'Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends'. Organized in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition brought together for the first time a collection of the artist's intimate and informal portraits of his impressive circle of friends, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Claude Monet and Henry James. By showing these less formal, often uncommissioned and experimental works together, the curator, Richard Ormond, sought to challenge conventional views of Sargent, exploring him as a painter at the forefront of contemporary movements in the arts, music, literature and theatre. My talk was part of a public day conference at the Gallery held on 17 April 2015, 'Sargent and the Arts of his Time'.

With his intelligence, sensitive ear and feeling for harmony, Sargent could have been as great a musician as he was a painter, according to the violinist and composer Charles Martin Loeffler, the artist's friend of 35 years. Sargent's responses to heard music and his links with musical people - some forged for his own career purposes through London concerts of the 1880s and 90s - are indeed telling. His direct support of both modern and vernacular musics, together with an eclectic use of piano playing in the portrait studio, adds depth to our understanding of his aesthetic development and the value he placed on friendship. Beyond associative connections, I suggested how musical technique may have influenced some of Sargent's compositions on canvas.

The day was capped by a delightful chamber concert of works associated with Sargent, devised by Oliver Davies and friends.

'[a] spirited and highly informative contribution to the conference ... music really stole the show'

Richard Ormond CBE, curator

'I’d be thrilled to invite you back again'

Fiona Smith, Adult Programmes Manager, National Portrait Gallery

For a published version of some of the ideas in this talk, see my article 'Art Music: John Singer Sargent as Listener, Practitioner, Performer and Patron', Visual Culture in Britain 19/1 (2018),

The text is also freely downloadable here.

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