John Singer Sargent
1856-1925 | American
Portrait of Clementina Anstruther-Thomson
Signed and inscribed “Anstruther-Thomson / John S. Sargent” (lower left) and dated "1889" (lower right)
Oil on canvas
The leading portraitist of his generation, John Singer Sargent created unparalleled portraits of socialites, businessmen, artists, actors, writers and musicians throughout his long career, many of whom he counted among his friends. As a group, it was often his portraits of his friends and family that are considered among his most successful works, and this captivating portrait of the writer and art theorist Clementina Anstruther-Thomson is no exception. A close friend and student of John Singer Sargent, Anstruther-Thomson is captured here with a warmth and vivacity that reveals the regard in which Sargent held the Scottish author. Intimate and modern, it represents all the finest qualities of his very best portraiture.
The work is a quintessential example of Sargent's style. The androgynous figure of Anstruther-Thomson is captured in a narrow and well-balanced range of light and color. The overall earthy tones of the composition are highlighted by strokes of robin's-egg blue in her blouse and hat, while the rosy hues of her cheeks and hands are echoed in the warm red tones of her fur shawl. The artist's use of dramatic chiaroscuro combined with impressionist brushwork exemplifies his expertise in capturing the fleeting effects of a moment in time. Overall, with its balance and its subtlety, the portrait offers a penetrating character study of its subject.
Anstruther-Thomson is best remembered as a highly influential art theorist on experimental aesthetics during the Victorian era. She worked closely with the renowned English essayist and novelist Vernon Lee, with whom she also had a long-term passionate relationship. Together, the two lived as expatriates in Italy, though they often traveled to London and across continental Europe to observe works of art. The duo co-authored a number of books and essays on the physiology of aesthetics. Anstruther-Thomson's complete essays on aesthetics were collected and published after her death by Lee in the book Art and Man in 1924, cementing her legacy in art history. This portrait stands as a testament to her strength of character, which Sargent brilliantly captures in her confident stance and indefatigable air.
Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent began his formal art training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence in 1871. In order to advance his education, the burgeoning artist moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1874 to 1878 under the great Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran, whose influence would play a pivotal part throughout Sargent’s artistic career. In fact, at his first showing at the Paris Salon in 1879, the painting he exhibited was a portrait of Duran.
After a somewhat tumultuous start on the Paris art scene, the attention his work garnered at the Salon propelled Sargent to great success as a portrait painter, and he exhibited there regularly. He quickly drew the attention of society's elite, making Sargent one of the most sought-after and respected portraitists of the era, both in Europe and America. In addition to oil paintings, he also executed a number of watercolors, as well as rapid charcoal portrait sketches he referred to as “Mugs.” However, it is his oil portraits for which he is most famous, and these works have achieved upwards of $23.5 million at auction.
Canvas: 42" high x 29 1/8" wide
Frame: 49 1/8" high x 36 1/8" wide
The Royal Academy of Art, London, 1890, no. 421
John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, Complete Paintings, Volume I, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998, R. Ormond and E. Kilmurray, no. 216, pp. 221 (illustrated)
Sargent's Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, 1956, by D. McKibbin
Collection of the sitter
by descent to Major William Anstruther-Gray, her brother
sold by Christie's, December 11, 1981, lot 93
Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Cohen
thence by descent