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A Sargent Celebration at the Huntington
John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Pauline Astor (c. 1898), a painting never before exhibited in the United States, will go on view at The Huntington beginning June 30, 1998, thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. William Carloss Morris III, of Houston, Texas. The largest and most impressive of Sargent's full-length portraits in a landscape setting, Pauline Astor will hang in the Virginia Steele Scott Callery of American Art. The painting will complement an important recent acquisition by The Huntington: Sargent's Mrs. William Playfair (1887), a three-quarter length portrait purchased from the New York collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Spiro with funds given by The Virginia Steele Scott Foundation.
Like his literary counterpart and friend Henry James, the expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) captured the glamour and elegance of Edwardian England's fashionable society, expressing with penetrating insight the individual personalities of his sitters. Sargent, born in Florence to American parents, studied and worked in Paris until 1885, when, after the scandal provoked by his Madame X, he moved to London. Within a few years he would become the premier portrait painter of London's high society, peopled by Britons and Americans alike. Though he would never live in the United States, Sargent remained loyal to his American citizenship, refusing a knighthood from King Edward VII because he did not wish to become a British subject.
Pauline Astor (1880-1970), who sat for her portrait by Sargent, was the eldest daughter of the Amencan financier William Waldorf Astor, who emigrated from New York to London in 1891. Miss Astor is shown dressed in a virginal white gown and silver-blue, fur-lined cioak, holding a fur muff; she stands in an autumnal garden and is accompanied by her King Charles spaniel Mossie, who tugs at her cloak. Although only in her late teens and not yet married, this self-possessed, elegant young woman had become mistress of her father's estate, Cliveden, upon the death of her mother in 1894. Despite her adult responsibilities, Miss Astor is presented by Sargent as a young woman in all of her youthful beauty, with her future fully ahead of her.
Mrs. WilIiam Playfair was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1887 and at the 1888 Paris Salon. The sitter (nee Emily Kitson, 1841-1916) is shown wearing a sumptnous yellow satin gown and a fur-lined, dark green velvet cloak. Set against an abstract background of deep red, she is ready to step out wearing distinctive jewels and carrying a fashionable fan and evening bag. As the fully mature forty-six-year-old wife of England's most prominent obstetrician and the mother of five children Emily Playfair appears solid and secure in her position and wealth. Yet she is also shown by Sargent as disarmingly relaxed, smiling with twinkling eyes and an open mouth--a pose unusual for a woman of her social standing.
Sargent's portraits of Mrs. Playfair and Miss Astor both demonstrate the artist's technical bravura. Sargent was influenced considerably by the works of some of the greatest masters of the Grand Manner portrait tradition, and the placement of Mrs. Playfair and Pauline Astor on view at The Huntington will provide a nch opportunity for comparison with the institution's celebrated collection of paintings by such artists as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Romney, and Gainsborough. In the Scott Gallery, the Sargert portraits will also join the artist's more intimate and informal half-length portrayal of his close friend, the artist Charles Stuart Forbes (c. 1882), given to The Huntington by The Virginia Steele Scott Foundation upon the opening ofthe gallery in 1984.
To enhance the presentation of Sargent's work as a portraitist, the gallery will also place on view two roundels executed by Sargent as oil studies for his murals in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These works come to The Huntington on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Harry Spiro. In 1916, the Museum of Fine Arts asked Sargent to design a cycle of images for the newly built rotunda; the success of this endeavor led to the commission of a second mural project in 1921. These two sets of murals depict mostly ancient mythological subjects, recalling the glorious beginnings of western civilization--an idea considered well-suited to a public museum at that time. The roundels on loan to The Huntington are Sphinx and Chimaera (1916-1921) and Judgement of Paris (1920-1922), both of which exist in other versions at the MFA.
The Huntington welcomes the opportunity to present a wide range of Sargent's oeuvre, from his portraiture to his public mural paintings, both in terms of the broader context of the history of American art, as represented in the Scott Gallery's collection, and in terms of the Grand Manner portrait tradition, as represented in the collection of the Huntington Gallery. This unique setting for the examination of Sargent's work should encourage important new insights into the development of his style, as well as his interest in the psychological character ofhis sitters, issues that tie him both to the concerns of his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century predecessors and to those of the modern age.
From top to bottom: Portrait of Mrs. William Playfair (1887); Portrait of Pauline Astor (c. 1898)
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