During the late 19th century, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was the most fashionable portrait painter in England and the United States. An example of his iconic style, his Portrait of Thérése, countess Clary Aldringen (1896) is now on view at the Getty Center in the West Pavilion, Gallery 202, on generous long-term loan from Renée and Lloyd Greif. To remember Sargent on the 85th anniversary of his death (yesterday, April 14), I asked Scott Schaefer, senior curator of paintings at the Getty, to join me in the gallery for a look at this stunning—and sizeable—portrait.
Sargent was a prolific painter, creating roughly 900 oil paintings in a variety of genres, and he quickly became the leading portrait painter of his day. What set him apart from his contemporaries?
First of all, his internationalness. He was an American artist who never lived in America. He spoke four different languages: French, Italian, German, and English—with an English accent, I might add—and therefore he could speak to the clients in their native language. He had also trained with the great portrait painter working in Paris, Carolus-Duran. But, given the fact that there was severe criticism of some of his portraits at the Paris salon, he decided to set up shop in London and people came to see him there.
Being a great portraitist is essentially doing what a patron wants. After all, a portrait is a combination of the artist working with what the patron has, and with how the patron imagines themselves to be seen, and he was able to do that with an extraordinary flair. As a result he became a very fashionable, very successful, and a very sought-after portrait painter.
How would you characterize his style?
Well, he paints with lightning speed, which you can see in looking at any of his pictures. He loved the sheer materiality of paint; he loved the brushes actually moving across the surface of the canvas. And he gave a kind of elegance and sophistication to his sitters that they may not have actually had. After all, what we know about Sargent’s sitters is based on what Sargent was able to reveal to us!
In the case of this particular portrait of Thérèse, countess Clary Aldringen, she’s obviously very proud of her height, grace, and her very tiny waist. By emphasizing her shoulders in the dress that he’s put her in, and by emphasizing the broadness of the sofa that she stands in front of, she looks even thinner and taller to us, and we find it possible to imagine she might have actually had an 18-inch waist. She was married in 1885 and had three children almost immediately, so you’re seeing a portrait of her after she’s had three children.
The countess seems to invite us into her luxurious environment. The natural assumption is that this is her home, but it’s actually not?
It’s the artist’s studio and these are studio props, but he is able to make them appear as though they are part of her environment, not his environment. One of her children actually tells us that while she appears to be gesturing for you to come into her space, she actually had a cigarette between her index finger and her second finger.
The Sargent painting is on view in the same gallery as Winterhalter’s Portrait of Princess Leonilla (1843) and Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon (1866). What sort of dialogue were you hoping to create between these elegant 19th century portraits?
You have three very attractive women painted by three very different artists. Tissot was a French artist who moved to London; he certainly must have known Sargent because they lived in the same neighborhood in Chelsea. Winterhalter was a German artist living in Paris who also painted international figures, so what you have here is the beginning of this extraordinary internationalness of artists painting for all different nationalities.
While the countess seems right at home alongside the princess and the marquise, does an American artist like Sargent belong in the European paintings galleries?
As I always say, Sargent was American by the fact that his parents were born in America, but he himself was born in Florence. He lived in Italy, Germany, France, ended up living in England, and actually only came to America very few times for very short periods. He was offered British citizenship, but for whatever reason he decided not to accept, so he remained an American citizen and we list him as an American.