Search This Blog

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Sargent's "Mrs. Fiske Warren & Her Daughter"

Living near Boston provides access to many of John Singer Sargent's works. One of my favorites is a society portrait of "Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter", which can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Sargent was born to American parents in Florence. He studied art  primarily in France under the teaching of Emile Carolus-Duran. Following the fervor over his controversial portrait, Madam X (originally painted with one strap off her shoulder; repainted with both straps up & now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY), he relocated to England. Like his parents, Sargent was a world traveler. He spent his adult life traveling back and forth between England/Europe and the US, primarily Boston & NY. Among his friends were notables of the time such as artist Claude Monet, author Henry James and Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner, who commissioned several works from him and purchased his early large scale painting of a Spanish gypsy dancer, El Jaleo, which can be viewed at the Gardner Museum.

Sargent's portraits were in great demand. He preferred other genres, but his portraits proved so popular he was heavily sought after by high society. As a body of work, these paintings are a testament to the "Gilded Age". His style was often a combination of a more traditional treatment of the face & use of color (he was a great admirer of the Spanish painter Velazquez 1599-1660) and the looser style of Sir Thomas Lawrence ("Pinkie") & later Impressionist painters in his representation of the clothing (note his treatment of the chevrons on Mrs. Fiske's gown - click on the photo for a close look). At the height of his career he chose to turn away from portraits and dedicate himself to open air landscapes, watercolors and public art, some of which may be viewed on the ceiling of the rotunda at the Museum of Fine Arts and at the Boston Public Library.

Mrs. Fiske Warren (1868-1961) was born Gretchen Osgood. Raised on Beacon Hill, she was considered "an accomplished actress, singer and poet" from an early age. She studied at Oxford, graduating with  honors (no mean feat for a woman in her time!), and married Frederick Fiske Warren, who commissioned this portrait in 1903. [Their home, The Hutch, at 42 Bolton Road in Harvard, Mass. (near Concord) is on the National Register of Historic Places.]

The sitting for the portrait was done at Fenway Court, the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner (the current Gardner Museum) on the 3rd floor, in the same room where empty frames remind us of the artwork stolen from the Gardner in 1990 (including a Rembrandt and a Vermeer). If you visit the museum today, you will find a photograph of Sargent painting the portrait of Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Rachel. It's rather interesting to see what the subjects actually looked like and then compare them to the painting. Andy Warhol once commented that Sargent "made everybody look glamorous".

If you visit the Boston area you have a splendid opportunity to view both the portrait and the photograph. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are within easy walking distance of each another, with ample parking available at the MFA parking garage. You might also wish to view the Warren home in Harvard, Mass. the next time you happen to be in the Concord area. It's a little piece of art history come to life!

Be sure to check your local library for books displaying Sargent's works. Two works featuring his portraits are John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s and John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits.  An inexpensive way to introduce your children to his work is to purchase the following sticker book. If you're homeschooling, be sure to tie-in Sargent when you teach the Gilded Age.

1 comment:

Beth'sMomToo said...

Visited the MFA today and saw the new installation of this painting in the recently opened Art of the Americas wing. It is so much more exciting to see the actual painting. They have a "Sargent" room in the new wing! I see many days of exploration ahead of me! :)