Monday, 27 April 2015

Art and the assassin. if only by association

The art of portraiture at first glance sounds monumentally dull.

Some worthy but undistinguished family with more money than aesthetic sense pays a painter to do them in oils, orders up a nice tree background, and smiles for the easel. They end up looking just as banal and dull as they probably were.

But that’s less true if the artist isn’t just painting to commission. And above all if he has real talent. As, for instance, if he’s John Singer Sargent. 

Well used to be, since John Singer Sargent’s been late for a while now.

Sargent’s remarkable ability emerges clearly from the exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery, which deserves all the praise the Guardian gave it. Take, for example, the time when he was commissioned to do the portrait of a well-off lady, and then, struck by the looks of her son, asked to do his too. The result, his painting of W. Graham Robertson, is one of the most striking in the show.

W. Graham Robertson
in a picture made by the coat
The young man – he was 28 at the time though to me he looks younger – wasn’t particularly happy about posing in an overcoat in the summer. Yes, even in England, the weather can turn hot. Or at any rate, too warm for an overcoat. Sargent, however, replied “but the coat is the picture.” Certainly the coat makes the picture, and it makes it dramatically well.

Talking of drama, one of my favourite paintings was of one of the great Shakespearean actors of his time, Edwin Booth. This portrait too has a story. Booth complained that Sargent wasn’t producing a good likeness; the painter erased the head and started again. The result is powerfully effective: a look full of brooding intensity but also, with the pose, the theatricality of the actor.

The great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth
Unfortunate in having a notorious younger brother
But that particular painting had a far greater effect still on me. Because Edwin Booth was not only a star in his own right. He came from a family of great actors. The weakest of them was his youngest brother, known more for his extraordinary good looks than for his ability on stage. Those looks led to his briefly being known as the youngest star in the world. His limited talent, however, could not sustain him on the heights for long.

So ultimately he could not rival his brother, the man in Sargent’s portrait, in fame. He did, however, overtake him, even overshadow him, in infamy.

For John Wilkes Booth, resplendent in looks but little else, was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

It was a chilling experience to stand in front of the portrait of his far more talented elder brother, and admire its execution.

Its only a shame that when his brother dabbled in execution, he too succeeded.

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