March 1, 2018, by Matt Davies

Inspiring Slides: John Singer-Sargent’s Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachael by Ellen Smithies

This week’s Inspiring Slide features a famous work by artist John Singer-Sargent who features prominently in the American section of the Humanities slide collection. This particular slide caught the eye of third year Classical Civilisation and History of Art joint hons student Ellen Smithies.

John Singer-Sargent was a late nineteenth and early twentieth-century painter famous for his portraits and depictions of Edwardian luxury. An American artist, he was considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation,” and was a popular artist among the upper echelons of Edwardian society. His work is famous for revealing the personality and individuality of each of his sitters, and combines the imposing size and composition of classical portraits with the loose brushstrokes and painterly style of modern paintings.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, oil on canvas, 1903, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, oil on canvas, 1903, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

One of Sargent’s most popular paintings is Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, now on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Commissioned by Gretchen’s husband, Fiske Warren, and painted by Sargent in 1903, this work shows poet Gretchen Osgood sat with her eldest daughter Rachel in an ostentatiously decorated room. Osgood makes direct eye-contact with the viewer – a common trend in many of Sargent’s portraits – and both her and her daughter are painted with a certain charming softness that emphasises their beauty and elegance. As with many of his portraits, much of the artistic focus is on the faces of the sitters, while the surroundings and clothes are treated much more impressionistically; dramatic sweeps of paint and dashes of colour allude to the portrait’s setting, whereas the sitters’ faces are painted with delicate precision.

The figures are seated in the Gothic Room at Fenway Court, where Sargent was invited to paint by American philanthropist and art collect Isabella Stewart Gardner. Sargent painted several portraits in the decadent Gothic Room, including this one. Sargent arranged Gretchen and Rachael in imposing Renaissance-era armchairs, and placed a fifteenth-century statue of Madonna and Child behind them, which the pose of Gretchen and her daughter is clearly meant to emulate. The sitter had originally intended to wear green velvet for the portrait, but Sargent refused, instead insisting that she wear the pink and white satin gown shown in the portrait, which belonged to her sister-in-law. Sargent clearly put a huge amount of thought into the composition and contents of his portraits, and used them to convey certain messages through his art.

Despite the tender posing of the pair, which was clearly intended to reflect their intimate familial relationship, both figures appear somewhat tense and distracted. Gretchen sits with her back straight, hands knotted in her lap, her facial expression somewhat aloof and challenging. Rachel appears distracted, gazing away from her mother while distractedly reaching for her mother’s hand; the viewer can imagine her fidgeting restlessly as the hours of posing went on. However, mother and daughter are shown tenderly, their cheeks flushed against their porcelain skin. Despite their distraction, Sargent has shown them faithfully; one critic celebrated the work for the “genuineness and human tenderness which emanate from it.”

Mrs. Fiske Warren, however, found her portrait too superficial, despite the rave reviews from the press at the time. She frequently lent it out to exhibitions and galleries, which helped to enhance Sargent’s reputation as a “master of psychological portraiture and dashing technique.” In 1964 the painting was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston by the then-grown Rachel Warren Barton, and it has since become a cornerstone in their Singer-Sargent collection.

f you are a member of UoN’s Arts Faculty and would like to enter the Inspiring Slides competition, get your work posted here on Digital Dialogues and maybe even win a prize. Just choose a slide from the collection–any slide will do –and write a response to it. It may be a memory prompted by the slide or an immediate response in the form of a story, poem or even art work, or perhaps an examination or interpretation of the image. Prose need not be long, three or four paragraphs, 500 words is about average.

If you cannot think of a particular image but fancy having a go, there is a selection of slides chosen exclusively by the DHC team on Lightbox one in the DHC. Choose an image, scan (yes we do have a slide scanner in DHC!) or take it away and let your imagination run wild!

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Posted in Inspiring Slides