Looking at Art: High Society
_A comparison of three portraits in the DMA collection offers insight on the ways socially prominent people were portrayed in 19th-century England and the United States. _
Sir Thomas Lawrence's Portrait of the Honorable Mrs. Seymour Bathurst (1828) is aristocracy incarnate, painted by one of the most naturally gifted artists in the great Georgian period of English portraiture. From the time when he was a preternaturally talented young man and painted Queen Charlotte until his death as the president of the Royal Academy in 1830, Lawrence's easy and glamorous portrait style made him a favorite in his native country and throughout Europe. When he was knighted in 1815, he joined the society he so glitteringly depicted. Lawrence's brush technique, learned from 17th century artists like Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens depicts a glamorous vision of aristocracy. Look at Mrs. Bathurst: she is posed against a balustrade, her figure silhouetted against a lavish English garden landscape, of which she becomes a part. Brilliantly dressed in white satin, her jewel-like glow is accented by the actual jewelry she wears and by the intense hues of the flowers near her hand. Lawrence achieved his sparkling, dynamic effects by sketching and blocking out the forms of his portraits directly on the canvas with oils. He then proceeded to the array of delicate over-painted details, which give the final surface so lively a texture. Study the elegantly defined rose neck scarf and waistband; the transparent gauze of the scarf lying voluptuously across Mrs. Bathurst's marble shoulders; and, above all, the finely delineated head with its luminous dark hair set against her pearly skin. The very carefully defined eyes, which are lit by tiny highlights, and give so much animation to the portrait, were one of Lawrence's trademarks. Mrs. Bathurst is wholly self-assured: wealthy, beautiful, cossetted, and serenely draped in the trappings of upper class English life. She suggests one of the worldly heroines of Benjamin Disraeli's early novels, a romantic socialite.
If you turn to an earlier example of American portraiture, Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of Mrs. John Ashley (c. 1798), you move into a different visual and social context. Stuart spent critical early years of his career in England. When he returned to the U.S. in 1793, he became one of the country's best known portrait painters. Stuart was remarkably skilled at capturing the persons and personalities of the young republic. Mrs. Ashley, wife of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant (whose companion portrait is also in the DMA collection, 1946.37.M) is as self-assured as Mrs. Bathurst, but demonstrates a less aristocratic air. This is a tighter, drier portrait than the Lawrence; it has the rosy flesh tones and speaking glance of Stuart's best portraits, but it is lacking in the textured opulence of Mrs. Bathurst. For her time and place, Mrs. Ashley is richly dressed, in turban and fine gown, but she suggests a solid bank account, rather than a courtly family's ancestral jewels. Where the figure of the English lady ripples with ephemeral silk and gauze, blowing in the rich air of out-of-doors, Mrs. Ashley is solidly columnar and seated in an interior space. Her mild middle-aged glance is irreproachable and imperturbable, in place of the romantic sparkle in Mrs. Bathurst's eyes. Stuart emphasizes simple solid real worth, as did young America itself.
A bridge between the two traditions is represented by John Singer Sargent's Dorothy (1900). Painted at the height of Sargent's career as a portraitist for elite English and American society, this image depicts the granddaughter of a wealthy American book collector. Sargent, like Stuart, was concerned with talking to his subjects—even playing games for his child sitters—in order to bring out their character or their unique expressions. But where Stuart had financial struggles, was dependent on his sitter for a living, and was funny and down to earth (he made puns and jokes), Sargent, an expatriate international artist and the child of Americans living abroad, had a far more sophisticated and ambiguous approach. For whatever reason - his own feelings about his sitters or their response to him - his portraits rarely have an uncomplicated effect. Dorothy is no exception. At first glance, the small girl seems overpowered by her extravagant hat with its voluminous proportions and excess of ribbon. Like the other two paintings described above, a Caucasian figure wears cream hues and contrasts with a warm, rosy ground. The chair on which the child is seated is defined only by an arm, and the deep rose background is left bare. Against this backdrop Sargent portrays an overdressed, intent, and none-too-happy little girl. The technique of the painting is close to the other two artists in its immediacy and fluent speed. Look at the broad patches of paint in the hat, or the rich shadows in the girl's gown. Sargent's speed of painting is somewhat deceptive, however, as he might clean off or scrape down his rapid passage over and over again, waiting for the right stroke.
Here, then are three portraits of well-to-do ladies, all with similar color contrasts, all concentrating on the textures and quantity of fabric, and all painted with expressive brushwork. In their approach to capturing and idealizing their "High Society" patrons the artists differ in temperament: Lawrence attacks his glamorous subject with gusto; Stuart treats Mrs. Ashley honestly and kindly; and Sargent's brilliant technique reveals a child's discerning expression beneath her wealthy costume.
Anne Bromberg, "Looking at Art: High Society," Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin (Winter 1986/87), 3-4.