John Singer Sargent
1856-1925 | American
Portrait of Laurence Millet
Signed, dated and inscribed “To Mrs. Millet 1887 John S. Sargent” (upper edge)
Oil on canvas
John Singer Sargent was considered the leading portraitist of his generation, having painted the likes of Lady Evelyn Cavendish, Claude Monet, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Theodore Roosevelt and the infamous Madame Pierre Gautreau. His portraits of his friends and family are often considered among his most successful and innovative work, and this captivating portrait of three-year-old Laurence Millet is no exception. The son of Sargent’s close friend and fellow painter Frank Millet, young Laurence is captured here with a charm and vivacity that places this work among the most significant achievements of Sargent’s early career. Intimate and modern, it represents all the best qualities of his finest portraiture.
Just a few years before this portrait was painted, Sargent made waves at the Paris Salon of 1884 with his highly controversial Portrait of Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art), in which he depicted the young socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a shocking state of dishabille. Paris was so scandalized by the risqué portrait that Sargent decided to flee to England. His destination was the artist colony of Broadway, a quiet Cotswold village that was frequented by various wealthy artistic Americans. There, Sargent stayed with his friend Francis “Frank” Millet and embarked on an important period of experimentation and stylistic transition.
Perhaps the greatest masterwork to come from this period was Sargent’s celebrated painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Britain, London), which he composed in the Millets’ garden. Like his portrait of Laurence Millet, the work captures the children of one of his contemporaries, the illustrator Frederick Barnard, in a stunning ode to youthful innocence. Painted en plein air at dusk, the fairytale-like painting reveals Sargent’s experimentation with what was then a modern and wholly unique painting technique – a mix of the Impressionist and Academic styles. This experimentation is also seen in his portraits of the Millet family, including the present portrait, as well as a stunning portrait of Lily Millet, Frank’s wife and Laurence’s mother, which is currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As all of these works were uncommissioned, they allowed Sargent a greater sense of freedom. His portrait of Laurence reveals this informality, showing the boy casually seated with one foot crossed over his knee. His long curly locks of hair frame his wide-eyed, cherubic face, and his sailor suit only adds to his youthful charm. Sargent possessed a certain affinity for children throughout his career, and he never sentimentalized them in his painting. Self-possessed and individualistic, Laurence is just as full of life and characterful as any of his adult counterparts. The work was later gifted by Sargent to Lily, the sitter’s mother, along with a similar portrait of Laurence’s younger brother, John Alfred Parsons Millet, which is currently held in the San Diego Museum of Art.
Sargent captures his subject with broken brushwork, eschewing veracity in favor of an impressionistic immediacy. In its dramatic use of light and dark, the portrait recalls Sargent’s groundbreaking Portrait of Madame X, though its execution is far looser and more relaxed, demonstrating Sargent’s break from Salon-style studio painting.
In a way, the style represents the very artistic freedom that Sargent enjoyed during these brief, though fruitful years of respite from the Paris and London art scenes. His time in Broadway provided a much-needed breath of fresh air for the artist, and his new aesthetic boldness would serve him well in the decades that followed. By early 1887, the scandal of Madame X had begun to fade, and Sargent earned several fruitful commissions in America and London, going on to become the most sought-after portrait artist of his age. His works painted while in Broadway, however, are considered among the best of his career for their bold, new style. Other similar examples can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), Flint Institute of Arts (Michigan), Tate Britain (London), Taft Museum of Art (Ohio) and the National Portrait Gallery (London).
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, he exhibited 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 and 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: 30 1/4" high x 20" wide
Frame: 39 3/4" high x 29 3/4" wide
Exhibition of Works by the Late John S. Sargent, R.A., Royal Academy, London, January-March 1926, cat. no. 20
Portraits of Children in Painting and Sculpture, Arden Gallery, New York, 1937
The Portrait in American Art, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1959, no. 32
Dallas Collects: John Singer Sargent, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1982
John Singer Sargent: Great Expectations: Sargent Painting Children, Portland Art Museum, June - November 2005
John Sargent, New York, by E. Charteris 1927, p. 260
John Singer Sargent: A Biography, London, 1955, by C.M. Mount, pp. 112, 431
"A complete checklist of Sargent's portraits," in Sargent's Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, 1956, by D. McKibbin
John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, Complete Paintings, Volume I, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998, R. Ormond and E. Kilmurray, no. 172, pp. 178, 256 (illustrated)
Mrs. Frank Millet, acquired directly from the artist
Parke-Bernet, New York, 26 January 1938, lot 53
Kleeman Galleries, New York, 1942
Dr. Chester J. Robinson
Hirschl & Adler, New York, by 1980
Private collection, West Coast
Private collection, Ohio