Seeing and Being Seen at the Sargent Exhibition

The Sargent exhibition is wonderful. That at least was what I heard repeated again and again by the close-packed spectators jostling through the galleries at Burlington House. “The extraordinary number [of works]! That’s what one is so impressed by…” (Roger Fry, “Sargent as seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition of his Works, 1926, and in the National Gallery.”)

The opening of a John Singer Sargent exhibition in London–the critically acclaimed Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends–has sent my thoughts back to my great aunt, Mollie Molesworth. Admittedly, it takes little for my mind to stray in her direction but, in this case, I have good reason.


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Daisy Day, Portrait of Mollie Molesworth


In the autumn of 1925, just a few months after Sargent’s death, the eighteen-year old Mollie enrolled in the Wimbledon School of Art, South London. While there, she began to fill a series of small sketchbooks with drawings and watercolors. The books form a kind of visual diary of her life as a student. The subjects in them vary widely and include anatomical sketches, drawings of plaster casts, notes from lectures, illustrations for poems or stories, memory sketches, travel observations, and vignettes of life in and around London.

In the last of these categories we can place a page from her notebook “IV,” containing material from December 1925 to May 1926. At the top of the perforated page is a laconic caption: “seen at Sargent Exhibition–.”


Mollie Molesworth, Page from sketchbook IV, early 1926

Mollie Molesworth, Page from sketchbook IV, early 1926


Mollie draw the sketch at the Royal Academy of Art, and the current Sargent exhibition seems positively modest in scale compared to the show she had seen there, the Exhibition of Works by the Late John S. Sargent, R.A. Running from January 14 to March 13, 1926, Mollie probably attended the show in late January or early February, judging from the dates recorded elsewhere in the same sketchbook.


Royal Academy, John Singer Sargent Exhibition, 1926, layout of galleries

Royal Academy, John Singer Sargent Exhibition, 1926, layout of galleries


The exhibition consisted of over 600 works of various media divided between a dozen rooms. (All those who complain of the size of today’s blockbusters, take note!) In the exhibition’s official installation photographs, which can be viewed here, we see empty rooms and empty benches.


Grove, Son and Boulton, Installation photograph of Gallery II during the exhibition 'Exhibition of Works by the late John S. Sargent, R.A. ', 1926

Grove, Son and Boulton, Installation photograph of Gallery II during the exhibition ‘Exhibition of Works by the late John S. Sargent, R.A. ‘, 1926. Click here for more installation photographs.


It is an emptiness prescribed by the function of the photographs, which is to document clearly the impressive and tightly packed display. Here, Sargent’s paintings, and especially his portraits, dominate the rooms. Mollie, in sharp contrast to these photographs, concentrates on the gallery-goers and their experiences. Perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer number of images in the show, she eventually turned her back on them. This is the “Sargent Exhibition” sans Sargents.

Possibly, there is a note of irony in Mollie’s caption, a sense that it was easier to see the people than the pictures. Seen at Sargent Exhibition?


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition (800x692)


Mollie fills her page with two distinct groups of figures on her vertically oriented sheet of paper. On the top half, we see five figures, who, perhaps, have been observed separately and then fitted together on the page: a woman in a hat and coat holding a lorgnette; a man consulting a book (the exhibition catalogue, perhaps); a second woman, wearing a tightly fitted and fashionably cut coat; and, with their backs to us, a guardian and child. The former’s umbrella, along with the other coats and jackets, serve to remind us that this was a winter exhibition.


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition, top figures (800x588)


Below these figures, Mollie sketched a group of four “close-packed” gallery goers. One infers that they are sitting on the same unseen gallery bench. The general shift on the page from action (above) to rest (below) hints at the physical demands a sizable exhibition inevitably exerts on its visitors. Drawn more rapidly, with a lighter touch and less detail, the seated group are nevertheless more compositionally balanced. Two of them, facing outwards and shown in profile, hold echoing poses; they bracket two central figures, who look towards us. Indeed one looks directly towards us through her lorgnette.

Quite possibly she is the same woman we encountered above, now threatening to observe the observer. The Sargent Exhibition, Mollie Molesworth’s sketch reminds us, was a thing to see, but also somewhere to be seen.


47, Seen at Sargent Exhibition, detail


The magnitude of Sargent’s achievement and output, impressive though it was, may also have been daunting to a young woman at the beginning of her own career. Even though she declines to draw directly after his art, Mollie’s drawings indicate that she was certainly involved in a dialogue with Sargent’s example. Not only does she depict people who, like herself, have come to look at his art; she does so with a sharp eye for the way people present themselves socially, through their fashion choices and through their body language. These are also, of course, important aspects of figure painting and portraiture.

If Mollie didn’t realize this already, then John Singer Sargent’s art was there to confirm the fact.


sargent catalog, p88

Sargent, The Misses Hunter, 1902, as reproduced in the 1926 Royal Academy catalogue

Comments or questions? Contact me and I’ll add them to the end of this post.

4/9/2015: Monica Bowen (of Alberti’s Window fame) comments:

It’s fun that you can connect with your own family and family history through this post! When I think of paintings by Sargent, I often think of familial connections, since he often painted group portraits of family members (such as “The Misses Hunter” included in your post). Just recently I saw Sargent’s famous painting of sisters (“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”) at the MFA:

Anyhow, your post, which is about your own familial relation, seems fitting to me when thinking about Sargent’s depictions of families.