Florence Evelyn Vickers "Evelyn" 
September 1884 (18 yrs) 
Taken within a few weeks after portrait 
Mabel Frances Vickers 
1878 (16 yrs)
c. 1894? (32 yrs)

Clara Mildred Vickers "Mildred" 
Mid to late 1880's (20 yrs + aprox.)

The Misses Vickers 
John Singer Sargent -- American painter  
Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, England 
Oil on canvas 
137.8 x 182.9 cm (54 1/4 x 72 in.) 
Jpg: Carol Gerten's Fine Art

From left to right: Florence Evelyn "Evelyn" (18 years old), Mabel Frances (21 years old), and Clara Mildred "Mildred" (19 years old)   

When Sargent showed the painting at the Paris Salon in May of '85, they snubbed it and called it "pseudo-Velasquez." When he showed it the following year in London at Royal Academy's exhibition of '86, it was voted the "Worst Picture of the Year" by The Pall Mall Gazette visitors poll. Critics called Sargent  use of perspective with "Mildred's" turned body, the angled chairs, the relative closeness of the figures in the foreground and the distant items in the background as a "juggler's trick," "shallow and pretentious."  It didn't at all fall in line with the neat and evenly distributed figures in Lawrence Alma-Tadema's neo-classical theme of Roman baths entitled "An Apodyterium" which was the Gazette's winner for best picture that year. 

Parallels are often drawn between Velazquez's dark tonal work and Sargent's The Misses Vickers. Certainly we see similarities in tone, the use of depth, and the light near the back of the room (upper right -- but difficult to see in this image) which he had also used in Daughters of Edward Darley Boit; but there is also the influence from the "spontaneity" of Frans Hals (whom Sargent also studied with equal enthusiasm)  particularly in the group portraits of his Banquet of the Officers which was totally missed by the English public.   

Sargent has no intention of giving us a neo-classical or a Pre-Raphaelite scene where our eyes can wonder aimlessly and equally over any point in the depth of the picture. This is a tight, modern image of three modern girls. Though they sit there obviously posed, there is an unmistakable naturalness about them. We see "Evelyn's" arm around her older sister sharing a magazine and we intuitively understand it to be correct. We see "Mildred's" arm resting over the back of her own chair with her hand woven back through onto her lap and we say "Yeah, that's right. I would do something like that."  

Sure, the painting is posed, we understand that. But we can almost sense Sargent talking to them about how "Mildred" needed to have her chair closer. Mable sits patently and quietly flipping through her magazine, and "Evelyn's" thoughts drift to boys and other places. There is a sweetness and truthfulness about the whole thing that speaks so honesty about these girls, all bathed in that melancholy darkness of some of Sargent's more powerful works.  

Sargent has done it! He has taken that incognizance of an instant -- that captured moment of Frans Hals and he's given it right back to us in the form of The Misses Vickers 

A juggler's trick?  


It is near perfection personified in the balancing of so many difficult elements. That the public didn't get it, seems astounding to me. It must have been crushingly depressing to Sargent since he had given it his all -- and it coming on the heels Madame X. It really wasn't all that different in theme from his Boits Daughters but it showed Sargent just how much Paris had turned on him, and how inhospitable the English were to his French style.  

Not all reviews were negative. Friends of his such as R.A.M. Stevenson (who studied with John in Paris) rallied to his support when he wrote for the American audience in The Magazine of Art, and Henry James, again later for the American Audience in Harpers. It would take some time, but critical acclaim would eventually come around to a shared consensus that this was one of Sargent's most significant portraits. 

 * * * 

An image can't ever replace the real painting and you can't see the brush work of Sargent but it's fascinating to read about his technique: 

Report on the Painting Technique 
By Mark Roberts 
Sheffield City Art Galleries 
Conservation Department 

Sargent has used a Parisian, commercially prepared canvas with an off-white oil ground for this large triple portrait The Misses Vickers. The canvas grain is very important in his design; the painter uses its surface texture like 17th century masters such as Velasquez. Sargent’s technique was founded in this 17th century tradition, starting the painting with thin washes of colour to establish the broad and dark masses, then building up half-tones. It is these half tones of underpainting, forming the shadows, which are enhanced by the canvas grain showing through. Further oil paint was applied in a very rich manner, and the dashing highlights were achieved with well loaded brush dragged over the canvas grain. This helped to create the tension, the movement and restless quality of an otherwise seemingly domestic scene of tranquility.  

Sargent made a number of small but important adjustments to the poses of the three sisters. There are pentimenti, ghosts of alterations, showing through the top layer of paint, particularly around the right hand of the central figure, and the left hand of the figure in the white, resting on the sofa back. He has applied too much paint to these areas and this, perhaps, had partially dried. It could not be scraped off so he applied an oil glaze over the impastoed paint to give it greater contrast, and this produced the effect of paint dragged over the canvas which is characteristic of this painting. It must be stressed that, although there are some pinpoints of wear in the paint layer, this broken surface of paint is a deliberate effect. This was achieved, for example, by trapping the brown tone between the canvas and half covering with a heavy highlight (q.v. the side of the central figure’s neck), or by use of linseed oil scumbled over half tones and over highlights to tone them down (q.v. in the lace cuff of the figure on the left).  

There are other alterations of proportion to the heads of the ladies, a problem indeed, considering the experimental perspective. Sargent had proceeded too far with the portraits to consider scraping back to the canvas, so he painted over the already oil-rich paint, and as the new layers had nothing to key into, they pulled away from one another during the drying phase, thus causing the large cracks in the paint layer. This air of speed (the painting was completed in 3 weeks) also manifests itself in the background, as here to a lesser degree there are smaller oil drying cracks due to too much linseed oil in the underpaint and in the top layer. 

(The Misses Vickers, The Centenary of the Painting, by John Singer Sargent, Sheffield Arts Department, July 1984, p.64)



John Singer Sargent, An Exhibition -- Whitney Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987
  • I am deeply grateful to G.W. and W.D. Hawksley of Sheffield England, both friends of the JSS Gallery, for sending me "The Misses Vickers Centenary" booklet. It was published by the Sheffield Arts Department in July of 1984 on the centennial of the painting and written by James Hamilton.
  • See the year in review  1883-1884
  • See Sheffield Galleries and Museums

Subject: Favorite Sargent 
From: Mark Heumann
mhe um ann@resourcedev.com 
Date: 3/30/2001 

The Misses Vickers - reminds me of Cranach's (Durer's?) painting of the three daughters of the Elector of Saxony located at (Kunsthistorisches) . . . My own impression, seeing it in the Kunsthistorisches, was that one girl was going to get into trouble, one would go along, and the third would try to reign the other two in. Consider reading the personalities of the Misses Vickers. Which one has the imagination? Which is compliant? Which proper? 

John Singer Sargent  
Portrait of Frances Mary Vickers (Mother)
Private collection
23.5 x 19  in.

Portrait of Colonel Thomas Vickers (Father)   
Private collection   
30 x 25 in. 

Ron Vickers (N/A) 
Oil on canvas 

Douglas Vickers  
(eldest son) 
Private collection  
29 1/2 X 24 1/2 in.  
Signed and dated 

Created 2/26/2001



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