Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 9, 2015

John Singer Sargent

Filed under: Art History,Portraits,Uncategorized — Rob Adams @ 5:46 pm

I had an opportunity to visit the National Portrait Gallery where they had an exhibition of John Singer Sargent, I had of course gone to see the Grayson Perry exhibits where he wonderfully sums up the nation’s beating heart by having a computer darn some words on a bit of cloth. It was more overwhelming than I had expected with all the words in different colours, a real treat. Having a bit of time spare I thought I would take in the Sargent too. It was fascinating, showing just how far art has advanced in recent decades. For a start every picture is ruined by the gratuitous use of skill. This takes them immediately beyond the reach of the ordinary man and into the muddy waters of elitism. He may be sublimely talented, but does he really have to push it into our faces? A more subtle artist would have painted them really clumsily, thus showing us the inner monsters we all wrestle with. Indeed standing in front of some of them you even feel as if there is a real person there who might start breathing. This is fundamentally dishonest to the materials of paint and canvas. There was also no excrement that I could see, which would have helped a lot I feel.

One of the first pictures he had obviously given up on it, and I could well see why.


I quite like the passage bottom left and wonder why he didn’t do it all the same way. He plainly wants to impress us with the way he has indicated the glasses with hardly any marks. Her name was Violet Paget but went under the name of Vernon. This is good gender aware stuff, but Sargent takes it nowhere, you only get the feeling of her character and that the painter was fond of her, rather than the deep political waters that ran under society’s polite upper crust. The drawing is worryingly precise, but still lost and found, distressingly clever. A more confident painter would have put all the lines in the wrong place. Not for the first time Sargent’s skill lets him down.

John Bratby

Here for comparison is how a real artist paints a person with red lips and glasses. This is by the astounding John Bratby. Here the paint is good honest paint not trying to pretend to be flesh. The drawing as well is wonderfully incorrect with no edge at all in the right place. He carefully avoids all subtlety here and if he has any skill at all he wisely hides it.



The artist travelled a lot in Europe and met many of the Impressionists. Here he makes a good beginning in using just the one colour mixed with black. Then he ruins it all by making the paint take on the illusion of a man. This catastrophically undermines the redness of the red. Most of my favourite artists just use colour straight from the tube, just adding a bit of white or black maybe. Here alas Sargeant wanders of into many subtle shades of the colour thus being untrue to what was written on the side of the tube and introducing unnecessary complexity and depth.



I tried to imagine what the immortal Rothko would have made of this subject matter. Even with my poor photoshop skills I produced something far better than the oh so talented Mr Sargent. I might actually do a canvas of this for next years RA show.

I was starting to feel pretty grim by now but spurred on by the memory of Grayson’s lovely pots with wobbly thick rims and crude sgraffito I persevered.


Singer Sargent

I had hopes of this one. The bloke in the background has no face. The other two do which rather ruins it all. He just can’t resist painting things well. Of course he is using brushes, I think here I would have used a mountain bike.



There were a few drawings. I didn’t bother to read the titles as I was loosing the will to live. What right has this man to push his superiority into our faces? Thank God we no longer torment our art students by forcing them to gain any of the skills that can produce such monstrosities as this. If they don’t have the skill or the ability in the first place then it saves so much work unlearning it later on.


Tracy Emin

Here is what a mature artist who has never taken the fatal step of learning to draw can achieve when taking on a woman with a hat! Here everything is gloriously wrong, better still it is not even wrong in a good way. In this Tracy Emin avoids getting hardly anything right. My one minor criticism is that she got the crown on the head and that you can tell it is a crown, no body fluids either which is a pity.


Singer Sargent

I could not carry on and had to escape. I wandered for a bit around the galleries and as if he was haunting me there he was again. Unlike the first one there isn’t the nice abstract bit bottom left. Even though it looks as if he dashed it all down in a few minutes it is distractingly real, far more alas that a photo. What really puts Sargent way down in the minor league of portrait artists is that he always goes for the obvious and hangs them with the head at the top. Despite it all if he had never wasted those years learning to draw divinely and paint as if angels guided his brush he could I feel have been a half way decent artist.



I leave you with a proper bit of painting by the supreme George Baselitz. Here everything is perfect the paint is right out of the tube with none of that fancy mixing. The drawing is nonexistent. Best of all though I have a suspicion that might be excrement in the background!



  1. Thanks for confirming Vernon Paget was actually a woman – she bears an odd resemblance to the young WB Yeats. All in all I think this your best word picture so far – never mind that constipated strain for the right thought and phrase lay it on thick with a pallet knife and risk that someone clueless will believe you meant it. In fact I think you should send it to the National; gallery as a hand out for people LEAVING the Exhibition.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — March 9, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

  2. Brilliant! Love the “Rothko.”

    Comment by Dewayne Matthews — March 9, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

  3. By the way is the man in the family group the butler – and professionally faceless, or just the husband rendered a non- person by his enormous wife.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — March 9, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

  4. I don’t think that Sargent means to make any comment on the faceless man, he is just ruthless in suppressing details in the background. His purpose is to supply a dark for her face which leads inevitably to the child’s eyes and the desire for cake!

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 9, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

  5. I don’t roll on the floor, laughing, much these days. But I did for this one!

    Comment by Michael Chesley Johnson — March 9, 2015 @ 7:28 pm

  6. The curators of this exhibition tried their best to diminish the things you highlight in your critique of Sargent’s dreadful work. The hanging of the exhibition manages to hide most of the faults you picked up on by hanging it in such a way that it’s difficult if not impossible to see the paintings properly, tucking them into corners etc. Congratulations to the gallery for being so aware of these issues and protecting us from them.

    Comment by Dave — March 9, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

  7. Yes the lighting designers had carefully put the light tracks in positions that made them reflect on the paintings from where the viewer is most likely to stand. I myself thought the reflected bits were the high point of the show, showing the intangibility of the tangible.

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 9, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

  8. Brilliant. Brilliant. Cleverly written and highly entertaining.

    Comment by Mick Carney — March 9, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

  9. Yes loved this! As an artist who had all my artistic skills ripped to shreds at art school, who lost out to students that turned up to crits with a chocolate cake, a broken candle or a used tissue instead of a painting, drawing or sculpture, I know painfully what you mean! I just paint plein air now … I guess they didn’t teach me anything … but then perhaps that was the point?

    Comment by Susan Carr — March 9, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

  10. Very good!

    You missed out the reference to the erstwhile Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts – or is that a title everybody would rather forget?

    Comment by Katherine Tyrrell — March 10, 2015 @ 12:01 am

  11. Feel better now? I do, Tanks!

    Comment by greg p — March 10, 2015 @ 2:07 am

  12. Brilliant, thank you. Hope the tide turns soon.

    Comment by adolfo mcque — March 10, 2015 @ 6:53 am

  13. Poor Tracy, she does get a kicking and it is not really her fault. First Saatchi then others all used her for their own ends. Inverse snobbery really she was like a character from Eastenders and an artist to boot… an ad man like Charles would spot that in an instant. If everyone tells you that you are brilliant why wouldn’t you believe them? The poor girl really does believe her work is incredibly important and employs elves to document and file her every scribble. To make her Professor of Drawing was I thought at the time very unkind. She would take it seriously, but not really understand that everyone else was for different reasons laughing at her. The public and pundits at the absurdity and the art establishment at all the traditionalists fuming and writing from Tunbridge Wells.

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 10, 2015 @ 9:25 am

  14. One of the best posts I read this year!!!lol!!!

    Comment by Adebanji Alade — March 10, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

  15. Oh, I’m so glad you got that off your chest…..brilliant! There is so much “tosh” masquerading as art and even more “tosh” written about it. Thank goodness there are still artists like you about who value skill and endeavour. I enjoy your ‘blogs’ as I also enjoy other down-to-earth talented artists such as Geoff Hunt who is writing and illustrating a monthly article on watercolour in ‘The Artist’ magazine at the moment. There is still some sanity around!

    Comment by Michael Trask — March 10, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

  16. Your most recent post was passed on by Haidee-Jo Summers and it really made me smile this morning just as I was off out to a painting group! Thank you for your insights! Kind regards. Malcolm

    Comment by Malcolm Cudmore — March 10, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

  17. My art teacher and friend posted a link to this sardonic article on my timeline, recently:

    Pingback by In Praise of Skill | Creative Ideas for Starving Artists — March 12, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

  18. Oh, I have to pass this on, too good to not share.

    Comment by Jose — April 6, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

  19. i love this article and wonder “what is art” today

    Comment by Mary Bechtol — April 7, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  20. I laughed all the way through this —then I cried. It’s like the emperor in his new clothes.

    Comment by Ed Cahill — April 7, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

  21. the entire thing is an absolute delight and that includes most of the comments. Wonderfully done. And Sargeant was the perfect painter to use for this. Thanks.

    Comment by CMDupre — April 8, 2015 @ 1:52 am

  22. Thank you for doing this. I liked the large JPG of Vernon Lee. I had seen the original and remembered the blank, bare canvas. It’s wonderful how he did the mouth and the spectacles. Much obliged.

    Comment by Ron Wilson — April 8, 2015 @ 3:56 am

  23. just what I needed to read this am!

    Comment by Sarah Benham — April 8, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

  24. Really great Rob!

    Comment by sandra flood — April 8, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

  25. To add insult to injury, they’re charging £16 a head to be subjected to this preposterous brilliance!

    Comment by Keith Hornblower — April 9, 2015 @ 12:41 am

  26. Fantastic insights! I’ve always hated how Sargent made me feel inadequate. Now I know why “modern” art is so much superior.

    Comment by Scott Burdick — April 9, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

  27. Yes! Sixteen Quid, I asked for my money back but they refused. I really hate having paid for an experience where I went in an “emerging” artist, like a butterfly and came out a clumsy caterpillar. It is so much more reassuring to look at work you might have knocked up yourself while watching the telly. The National Gallery next door is full of stuff done by over talented people so I always avoid it. Nicholas Serota apparently has put forward a plan to reimagine the gallery as a tribute to our greatest living artist Tracy Emin so that anyone who went in could feel as if they could become an artist tomorrow if they had the time and a couple of crayons.

    Comment by Rob Adams — April 10, 2015 @ 8:44 am

  28. This is a riot. Absolutely awesome! 🙂

    Comment by Dean Adams — April 11, 2015 @ 2:48 am

  29. Absolutely brilliant. I have only just discovered your work, I love all your work even down to the quick sketches, I also love your modern art stance.



    Comment by Ray Smith — May 3, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

  30. Thanks Ray, I read you blog, my views would diverge considerably from yours I suspect. I find the Art Renewal movement as bad as the contemporary art clique, they want to go back the last time the art world was over academic and intellectually bankrupt IE 19th century France.

    Comment by Rob Adams — May 4, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

  31. You should have gone to artfields at lake city , sc – it was at least free

    Comment by Barbara — May 6, 2015 @ 3:19 am

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