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Centennial Loan: Sargent

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Helen Sears
Mark Cole, Curator of American Painting
June 16, 2016

Portrait of Helen Sears, 1895. John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Oil on canvas; 167.3 x 91.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Mrs. J. D. Cameron Bradley, 55.1116. Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Generously talented, abidingly industrious, and socially adroit, John Singer Sargent was the go-to artist of his generation for fashionable patrons on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted themselves immortalized. For more than four decades, he produced portraits for an impressive number of sitters; indeed, scholars have cataloged more than 600 examples in oil—not counting hundreds more in watercolor, ink, charcoal, or pencil. Regarded today as one of the most gifted portraitists in American art, Sargent is admired for his incisive characterizations and dazzlingly bravura technique. His creations seem to embody the very essence of Gilded Age elegance.

Although the vast majority of his portraits depict adults, Sargent had a special affinity for painting children, whom he also presented with pronounced insight. Typically Sargent’s images of children avoid the trappings of sentimentality and condescension so often adopted by other artists of his era, and Portrait of Helen Sears—depicting the daughter of a wealthy Boston couple—typifies this more intellectually complex approach. Even though the six-year-old girl is presented from an elevated and slightly angled point-of-view, as if she were under the watchful eye of a grown-up, she does not return this gaze, nor do her eyes meet those of the painting’s viewer. Rather, she looks off into space, immersed in wistful reflection as her delicate fingers absentmindedly fondle hydrangea blossoms. Ultimately Sargent’s presentation emphasizes Sears’s inner life, those private thoughts and emotions inaccessible to every-one around her.

Exceptionally vivacious brushwork—a dramatic hallmark of Sargent’s style—plays a starring role in the portrait. Sears’s hair, face, and dress are rendered in creamy, fluently applied pigment, an exuberant application additionally matched in the accompanying flowers. Here, Sargent creates a visual shorthand for forms seeming to dissolve under intense illumination, as if spotlighted on a 19th-century stage by gas or arc lamp—an effect thrown into sharper contrast by the composition’s unusually dark background. Sargent’s flair for the theatrical is perhaps unmatched in this portrait, one of his most successful creations.   


The Cleveland Foundation Gallery
September 3–November 1

Cleveland Art, July/August 2016