Monday, February 18, 2013


Mrs. William Shakespeare (Louise Weiland), c.1896

Mrs. Thomas Edward Vickers, c.1884

Mrs. Wilton Phipps, c.1884

Mrs. Asher Wertheimer (Flora joseph), c.1898

Mrs. Waldo Story, 1883

Mrs. Ernest G. Raphael (Florence Cecilia Sassoon), 1905

Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears, 1899

Mrs. Huth Jackson (Clara Annabel Caroline Grant Duff), 1907

Mrs. Louis Raphael, c.1900

Mrs. Ralph Curtis, 1898

Mrs. Charles Hunter (Mary Smyth), 1898

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted many different subjects during his long and excessively busy career. He was one of those cultivated Americans of the past who spent most of his life and produced most of his vast body of work in Europe. Golden interiors. Glowing garden scenes. Historic architecture. Peasants and workers and anonymous studio models. Venetian fantasias. Mythological murals.

But by far the largest and most reliable chunk of his income came from portraits of rich women, like the ones seen here. The Victorian/Edwardian fashion for "swash" portraits (in the style of Van Dyke, with lots of satin on display) suited Sargent's temperament and proved hugely lucrative. I remember reading somewhere that his portraits commanded extremely high prices almost from the outset, with the rates ascending according to medium and format. Drawings or watercolors (executed within a single sitting) were far less expensive than oils. And half-length or three-quarter-length oils cost considerably less than full figures.  

Mrs. Charles Thursby, 1897
What is to me most admirable about these formulaic portraits is the ingenuity Sargent deployed to conceal the fact that they were essentially all the same.