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17/02/2015 09:00 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 06:59 BST

New John Singer Sargent Exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

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John Singer Sargent was considered to be one of the finest portrait painters of his generations, yet often his work was commissioned and therefore chained to the requirements of the sitter. This wonderful new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery shows a painter free from those shackles, exhibiting mostly non-commissioned portraits Sargent painted of his friends and acquaintances.

Away from the pressures of commissions these works show Sargent experimenting with styles and settings. Some of the work is quite radical for its time and shows a painter with immense variety and skill. And all these works collected together makes for an exciting and surprising exhibition that challenges the conventional view of this great artist.

Sargent was a great traveller and the pieces on show include works from Sargent's time in Paris, London, Boston and New York as well as his some from his vacations in the Italian and English countryside.

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But the scope of the sitters reveals a man very much at the centre of the creative arts with his close friends being many of the leading artists, actors and writers of the time.

As an example, the only two surviving portraits Sargent painted of his friend and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson are displayed here together for the first time since they were painted in the 1880s. There are also portraits of Auguste Rodin and a striking Claude Monet in profile.

The lack of commission meant the lack of pressure so Sargent experimented with informal and unusual representations in the portraits of his friends. Mrs George Batten, one of the foremost mezzo-sopranos of her time, is shown singing with great gusto, whereas Ellen Terry is painted as a Pre-Raphaelite Lady Macbeth, placing the crown on her head after the murder of Duncan.

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This theatricality can be seen in some of the other works on show. La Carmencita is his portrait of the wild Spanish dancer who took New York by storm in 1890. The lady was a notoriously difficult sitter, constantly restless, and this energy is reflected in Sargent's quick brush strokes with parts of the painting seemingly left unfinished. Yet her pose is so defiant, so challenging. There's such a powerful spirit within this portrait.

Similarly, Edwin Booth was a tricky sitter for Sargent. The actor sat for Sargent in 1890 but liked neither the experience nor the resulting portrait. On hearing this, Sargent wiped out sections of the painting and started again. The final result, which hangs in the show, is considered to be one of the artist's finest works.

As well as drama, there's also great beauty in the informality Sargent coaxed from some of his sitters. The wonderful portrait of Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, which opens the exhibition, was an important piece in Sargent's early career - it was painted in 1880. The portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1881, earning him a second-class medal, which meant that he was allowed to exhibit at future Salons without submitting to the jury.

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This portrait was painted in Paris and the impact of the French Impressionist movement can also be seen in other works, including the warm and idyllic Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose of two girls playing with paper lanterns in a garden. The fading light as dusk falls is incorporated perfectly into the portrait, giving it a romantic feel.

The exhibition may be comparatively small when compared to the big shows at the Royal Academy and the Tate but this actually works well. Instead of being overwhelmed we feel that intimacy that formed the basis of so many of the portraits on show. A thrilling exhibition full of spirit, life and personality.

National Portrait Gallery, London to May 25, 2015

Admission: £14.50 (concessions available)

Image Credits:

1. Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881 Copyright: Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

2. Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 Copyright: Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

3. La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 Copyright: Musée dOrsay, Paris (R.F. 746)

4. The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy by John Singer Sargent, 1907 Copyright: Art Institute of Chicago