The Gilded Age & Sargent

With the recent cinematic release of 

David Bickerstaff's film about the Tate Britain’s Sargent and Fashion exhibition, we take a look at the legend who became one of the most successful painters of the late 19th century.

Nonchaloir (repose) by John Singer Sargent, 1911. Courtesy of David Bickerstaff

John Singer Sargent, the son of an American doctor, was born in Florence in 1856. Studying painting in Italy and France, he was renowned for his resplendent depictions of figures from the Gilded Age. Not only did his portraits go beyond the regiments of social class, but they're rich with sumptuous fabrics and fictional allusions. Notably, the artist was attracted to the verve and vigour of modernist rebels like Manet and Monet (who he met in 1876). Foregrounding his sitters against dynamic backdrops and lush scenery, Sargent's portraits possess clues to their backgrounds and social personas.

Over the years, many comparisons have been made between Sargent's portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (or Madame X) and the scores of little black dresses dominating the red carpet. Posed in a shoulder-baring charcoal dress, Gautreau's profile is a striking contrast between black fabric and pale flesh. The painting offended conservative viewers during its first showcase at the 1884 Salon exhibition in Paris (the avant garde capitol where Sargent began his career). Similar to Angelina Jolie’s Atelier Versace dress & Charlize Theron’s Dior frock, both of which graced the Oscars red carpet in 2012 and 2014, Gautreau's glamorous outfit served to highlight her innate sexuality and sophistication; reminding us of the elusive power a little black dress lends to the wearer.

Filming Sargent at Tate. Courtesy of David Bickerstaff.