John Singer Sargent's The Three Graces
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Three Graces, Pompeii (?)

Sketch for the Three Graces (Recto)

Sketch for the Three Graces . 2 (Recto)

Sketch for the Three Graces . 4 (Recto)

Sketch for the Three Graces - Legs and Feet . 5 (Recto)

Sketch for the Three Graces - One Study


The Three Graces
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Rotunda Bas-Relief 
Raised painted plaster
Jpg: local

The Three Graces are an often used iconographical subject in classical art. That Sargent has put them center right once you reach the top of the stairs and enter the Rotunda shows you the importance he places on them within his overall plan.

The Rotunda
From the top of the Grand Stairway

They are meant to be immediately recognizable and speak to an understood reference of the female nude as art. Although they have been copied and used by artists countless times, the vocabulary in how they are expressed is often surprisingly  (not always, but in the classical since often) extremely narrow – three girls, dancing, getting ready to dance, or embracing in a circle with two facing us and the one in the middle facing away. 

They are the three daughters of Zeus and the nymph Eurynome and they are the goddesses of “Radiance,” “Joy,” “Fruitfulness,” “Splendor,” “Mirth,” “Good Cheer,” and many other things. Each, I believe, is to represent only one grace, although through the difficulty of translation, or whatever, a general grouping of many synonyms seem to get thrown on them. The three of them preside over happy events amongst mortals and gods -- gatherings with friends, dances and celebrations. They would also dance for Apollo to the beautiful music from his lyre, and they would inspire mortal artists with abilities – similar to the Muses.

When I first saw the sketch of The Three Graces which Sargent did in Pompeii,   I got excited that this may have been his inspiration. But in trying to find the actual fresco or painting of Sargent’s drawing, I began to understand the overwhelming wealth for this iconography in art. My search then turned more towards finding the inspiration of his exact pose for his final version of the Base-Relief within the Rotunda.

Is there one?

Rubins, Raphael, Burne-Jones, and on and on. Each seemed to have taken the challenge and spun it slightly their own way. Sargent, himself, toyed with different poses such as having Apollo lifting in the lyre to the outstretched hands of the Graces in sketch #6. The more I looked the more perplexed I became until I came upon the realization that maybe it’s not in the two dimensional world I should be looking, but rather in the world of sculpture and three-dimensional form. Sargent, you’ll remember, is himself working in the three dimensions and he was never a trained sculptor. So for him to try to find inspiration for help seems very likely.

So, the journey then took me from the classical world of Pompeii to the unlikely modern city of Paris and the Louvre -- specifically -- a museum in which Sargent must have visited countless times. Here we find two classical sculptures of The Three Graces: one is Roman and one is Greek.

Interesting, isn’t it? The latter is a sculpted relief of just the women’s bodies and legs --  a blank canvas (of sorts) that any artist can imprint their own interpretation upon. Notice the bend of the knees and the hips suggesting the sway of dance – beautiful! Now if Sargent was to have the girl on our right raise her arms to hold Apollo’s musical instrument, would not the middle girl’s hand (which presumably had been holding the right girl’s upper arm) naturally drop a little?

I’m not suggesting that this was Sargent’s one and only inspiration, but I am suggesting this could have been a strong one. And even if I don’t have it correct, the joy for me has been in what Sargent has been able to teach me about the wider understanding of what these three women represent and their  subsequent meaning at the MFA.

Rotunda Dome Decorations
Looking straight up

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



Unknown Roman Artist

The Three Graces
79 AD


The Three Graces

Peter Paul Rubens

The Three Graces

Edward Coley Burne-Jones

The Three Graces
c. 1890-1896

Unknown Roman Artist

The Three Graces
1000 AD

Unknown Greek Artist

The Three Graces
c. 323-146 B.C

By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2005 all rights reserved
Created 2/18/2005