In Focus

John Singer Sargent's Dorothy

In reviewing the Society of American Artists Annual Exhibition of 1901, the New York Times art critic remarked:

"The portraits are many and good, led easily by little Miss "Dorothy" in the Vanderbilt Gallery, from the easel of John S. Sargent. Seen near by, the red paint on the lips, the white paint on the little girl's hat seem quite misplaced; but as one steps back a bit the magic stroke takes place - the red lips are all right, the white ribbon is just right!"

The writer's admiration of Dorothy typified turn-of-the century reaction to the seemingly magical portraits executed by John Singer Sargent.

Born in Florence on January 12, 1856, John Singer Sargent came to embody the cosmopolitanism of his era. He was characterized as an American born in Italy and educated in France, who dressed like a German, spoke like an Englishman and painted like a Spaniard; his friend Henry James considered him "civilized to his fingertips."

Sargent experienced an unusual childhood, traveling extensively about Europe with his family. His mother, Mary Newbold Singer Sargent, had determined that the family would live in Europe, where she and her husband, physician Fitz William Sargent, had moved in 1853. Due to his family's peripatetic life, Sargent received little formal education. However, he did study art with Carl Welsch, a German American artist, in Rome in 1868 and attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. In 1874, Sargent entered both the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and the private atelier of Carolus-Duran. From Carolus-Duran, an artist who esteemed the work of Diego Velàsquez and knew Edouard Manet well, Sargent learned the processes of direct painting which served him throughout his career. The Parisian master stressed close observation, compositions based on contrasting values and the broad application of paint, with minimal detail and reworking.

The influence of Carolus-Duran's teaching appears in Sargent's painting method as described by Julie Heyneman, a pupil of Sargent's in the 1890s. She relates how he seldom executed preparatory oil sketches, instead indicating the figure with a few charcoal lines on the canvas. He always placed the easel near the sitter, enabling him, from a distance, to see both subject and canvas in the same light. Painting with a loaded brush ("The thicker you paint, the more your color flows," he declared), he composed by means of large planes. Heyneman records:

"Till almost the end there had been no features, no accents, simply a solid shape growing out of and into a background with which it was one. When at last he did put them each accent was studied with an intensity that kept his brush poised in mid-air till eye and hand had steadied to one purpose and then ... bling! the stroke resounded almost like a note of music."

Sargent's touch-and-go technique not only resulted from his contact with Carolus-Duran, but also from his study of the art of Velàsquez (he traveled to Spain for that purpose in 1879), Frans Hals (he visited Haarlem in 1880), and the impressionists (especially Claude Monet, with whom he was friendly). He admired in Velàsquez a sense of grandeur and manipulation of space; in Hals, he marveled at the expressive brushwork; and in impressionism, he was taken with the quick stroke and rendering of light. Out of this mix, Sargent created his own distinctive style.

Sargent began his professional career in 1879. His promising success as a portraitist suffered when he exhibited his controversial depiction of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the infamous Madame X (1883-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art). After a subsequent decline in portrait commissions, he settled in London, where he became the major chronicler of late Victorian and Edwardian visages. He continually traveled throughout Europe and, after being commissioned to paint murals for the Boston Public Library in 1890, made frequent trips to the United States (he had been to America twice earlier, his first visit occurring in 1876). Elected an Academician of the Royal Academy in 1897, Sargent would have been named, had he consented, its President in 1919. In 1907, he refused a knighthood on the grounds that he was a United States citizen. The same year marks Sargent's virtual abandonment of portraiture; impressive mural decorations and watercolors occupied him almost exclusively during the fifteen years before his death in 1925. He apparently just grew bored of portraiture - "No more paughtraits ... I abhore and abjure them and hope to never to do another especially of the upper classes." Certainly, the frustration of pleasing patrons also contributed to his forsaking portrait painting; he once satirically defined a portrait as "a likeness in which there was something wrong with the mouth."

However, in 1900, the year in which he painted Dorothy, Sargent enjoyed the height of his powers in portraiture. This painting wonderfully exemplifies his ability to impart to an image a sense of vitality and immediacy. As in his best work, Dorothy fascinates us both as a display of sheer virtuosity in painting and as a representation of an individual. We are aware of both aspects, yet neither detracts from the other; instead, both harmonize in the realization of a unified work of art. In Dorothy, the vigorous brushwork plays off the stability of the pyramidal arrangement, while the dazzling painterly surface contrasts with the deep intensity of the girl's sloe-like eyes. The painting's sketchy quality (Where is the chair?) further enhances the liveliness and directness of the image.

Little is known of the opulently costumed young sitter, Dorothy Williamson, who engages us so strikingly. Presumably, she was the daughter of George Millar Williamson (1849-1921) of Sparkill, New York, who initially owned the work. Williamson was one of the first American book collectors to devote himself almost entirely to modern American and British authors. Dorothy's portrait was probably painted in Sargent's London studio, while the father (who the artist also depicted) sought out rare books and manuscripts by his favorite writers - Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. Dorothy received favorable critical notice when exhibited at the 1901 Society of American Artists Annual Exhibition and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Annual Exhibition of 1902. The work also served as an illustration in a 1901 Scribner's Magazine article entitled "American Portraiture of Children."

Sargent apparently enjoyed painting children and, if Sir Osbert Sitwell's account (in his 1945 autobiography Left Hand, Right Hand!) holds true for others, children liked to be portrayed by him. Sitwell, who as a small boy sat to Sargent for his family 's large portrait in the same year as Dorothy, recalled the artist not only being nice to children but also spellbinding to watch because of the rapidity of his execution. He was capable of holding a child's attention by the recitation of a limerick and a most unusual whistling. In looking at Dorothy, one can imagine the well-dressed artist performing these actions while the child stares in close observation, if not amusement.

Though an image of an elegant age now long past, Sargent's painting retains, through the artist's incredibly adroit handling of paint, an extraordinary sense of immediacy. Little Miss Dorothy appears as fresh today as she did in 1900.

Adapted from

Mark Thistlethwaite (Professor of Art History, Texas Christian University), DMA Bulletin (Fall 1982), 2-3.

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Web Resources

John Singer Sargent, _Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)_, 1883-84
Look at the artist's most infmaous work, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.