JOHN SINGER SARGENT (1856-1925)
Elegant and beautiful, Henriette, the wife of a London bank director, was painted by John Singer Sargent over 100 years ago. Adorned in a shimmering dress and jewels, the lady rests her elbow on a mantelpiece in an interior setting that is as stunning as she is. Light streams in from an unseen window at the left illuminating Henriette and the room she finds herself in, Sargent’s London studio. Expanding our view into the room, the mirror also offers a glimpse of Henriette’s profile. The column on the mantelpiece recalls the enduring popularity of the classical style as Henriette displays the latest fashion. The highlights and loose brushstrokes in the painting add to the overall effect of opulence.
The interest in light and reflective surfaces along with the virtuoso brushwork reflect Sargent’s interest in the Dutch and Spanish masters. At the same time, Henriette is a modern woman; and we can note the influence of Sargent’s Impressionist friends in the loose brushstrokes and highlights. Many associate the painter’s work with realism too. While some criticized Sargent for being too daring, others found his work confined by precedent. His paintings not only fit in with historic collections but looked fresh and new. And most of all it seems he was loved for rendering his subjects as elegant and lifelike. Although the camera had been invented, the rich and famous continued to have their likenesses recorded in Sargent’s portraits.
The most popular society portraitist of his day, John Singer Sargent lived his life in Europe. After moving to Paris with his family, he studied under the painter Carolus-Duran, who taught him the alla prima painting technique of wet-on-wet. When he painted Henriette, Sargent was living in London, where he was a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. While he was loved for his portraits of everyone from President Teddy Roosevelt to dancers, he painted many other subjects, including the First World War from the battlefront.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, portraits often commemorated important men and the wives and daughters of wealthy families. Prior to World War I, business was booming and many who had recently made their money were eager to make their names. John Singer Sargent painted the newly rich and aristocrats alike, capturing the luxury of the era. On the left, you can see The Wyndham Sisters, 1899 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), an example of a portrait by Sargent of the daughters of a wealthy man in the Family’s London home. On the right is a painting from the Museum’s collection of a woman artist from Alabama, Portrait of Anne Goldthwaite, 1895. This portrait was painted by another female artist from Alabama, Clara Weaver Parrish. The sitter’s jacket and hat tell us that she is ready to work.
John Singer Sargent, The Wyndham Sisters, oil on canvas, 1899; John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Louis E. Raphael (Henriette Goldschmidt), ca. 1906, oil on canvas; Clara Weaver Parrish, Portrait of Anne Goldthwaite, 1895, oil on canvas.
What is going on in this painting? What do you see that makes you say that? If you were having your portrait painted, what would you wear? What would you include? Do you think Henriette liked having her portrait painted?