Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sargent and Caricature

When John Singer Sargent painted a portrait, he exaggerated the proportions and features to make his subject look more elegant and distinctive.

At left is a detail of Sargent's 1902 portrait of Lord Ribblesdale (Thomas Lister, 4th Baron Ribblesdale) alongside some photos of the subject in similar poses.

Sargent made many subtle accentuations. The head is smaller relative to the figure, making the figure look taller and more regal. Within the face, he made the outer folds over the eyes turn downward more dramatically. 

Some of the differences in the folds and lines of the face may be explained by the aging of the subject, but Sargent changed the bone structure and proportions, too. He narrowed the jaw and lengthened the nose. These are all deviations away from the normal, standard face. 

To be clear, the painting was done from life, not from photos, but the photo at center, taken in 1884, may have provided a starting point for Sargent's interpretation.

A contemporary cartoonist in Punch emphasized the absurd aspects of Sargent's interpretation. The note says "Regrets...Or Why did I Speculate on Such a Neck Tie? —J.S. Sargent."

Sargent was as much a caricaturist as a copyist, and that's what makes his portraits so memorable. 

At the links below, you can see other painting-to-photo comparisons.


Unknown said...

Russian Sherlock Holmes http://images.aif.ru/006/525/11e4748ccc9e8ec9ba2ba2a4cb4ed74f.jpg

Bil Hardenberger said...

Personally I think the gentleman is more striking and interesting in the two photographs. I'm all for exaggeration, but perhaps he went just a bit too far with this portrait?

Tom Hart said...

Very interesting notes and observations James.

Also, it's nice to ponder a time when painting was such an important part of general culture that a particular piece would be the lampooned in a cartoon.

A Colonel of Truth said...

Undoubtedly, Mr. Sargent, too, was an astute psychologist - painting his subjects as they (delusionally) saw themselves. So, how could he not have been wildly in demand and fabulously wealthy?! Today, too many portrait "artists" copy photographs - and the paintings are as unattractive as the subjects.

Unknown said...

Interesting post and subject. I think I read somewhere that Ingres said all good portraits have a little bit of caricature in them.

Unknown said...

I heard Sargent once said "A successful portrait is a picture of a very attractive person who bears a slight resemblance to the sitter." He was, I believe, quite wealthy.

My Pen Name said...

Norman Rockwell did this too.

Clara Lieu said...

This is an excellent point that you make about Sargent's (and many other portrait artists) approach. I have found that when one has the mindset of simply "copying" a face, the face ends up looking lukewarm and too understated. It's in the subtle exaggerations the artist interprets into the portrait that truly capture the unique character of each face. Great post!