This week marks the 161st birthday of John Singer Sargent, one of the most renowned American portrait painters. Sargent’s work oscillates between realism and impressionism, lending an utterly human voice to his paintings and portraits; a voice that speaks volumes, and has spoken to me for years. I have cried in front of every John Singer Sargent painting I’ve ever seen. I studied Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) in high school and ran into her at the Met years later. I stood there for about 20 minutes, the other patrons passing around me, snapping their photos, and, yes, I shed a tear or two.
She was so powerful, so self-assured. Madame X was, to me, a pillar of strength. The piece itself is a play in opposites—black and white, portrait and profile. Her face is impossible to read. She is, quite simply, not of this world. I had never seen such a beautiful portrait.
Later still, standing in front of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth) at the Art Institute, I saw the same fire Sargent had shown in Madame X. The same regal assurance, the same power, yet Mrs. Swinton does not shy away from the viewer, and is perhaps even more intimidating than Madame X for that very reason. She is very much of this world. When you spend time with Mrs. George Swinton, her eyes begin to speak to you with the intelligence, vulnerability, and confidence of a young woman in society.
I did cry, again, in front of her. Perhaps for her beauty, perhaps for her vulnerability, perhaps for her fire and sheer force of will that comes shooting through the canvas.
There is, in my mind, no portrait painter like John Singer Sargent. His works, upon close inspection, betray certain details one wouldn’t expect of Gilded Age portraits. The bodies of his subjects frequently have a loose, impressionistic quality to them, while their facial features are rendered in sharp detail. Works like Mrs. George Swinton combine two of Sargent’s iconic qualities, both of which can be seen elsewhere in Gallery 273 with Study from Life and Portrait of Charles Deering. The latter has a more impressionistic quality to it (though Sargent didn’t consider himself among the Impressionists), while Study from Life has an exacting, academic feel.
His ability to combine these two stylistic disciplines in portraits like Mrs. George Swinton gives his paintings a faithfulness in physical depiction and a hint of the sitter’s disposition. Sargent had the ability to make you understand his subject’s personality, a rare gift for a painter—and the viewer.
The power behind Sargent’s portraits never ceases to amaze me. Take a moment to commune with Mrs. George Swinton this weekend in honor of this magnificent painter’s birthday.
John Singer Sargent. Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), 1897. Wirt D. Walker Collection; John Singer Sargent. Study from Life, 1891. Anonymous loan.