|Subject: The Date of his mothers
death is critical
It is widely attributed that Sargent
stopped taking portrait commissions in 1907, though I had always suspected
that upon his mother's death and inheriting her money, he was able to live
without portrait commissions and his decision became easier.
That in itself is an over simplification.
By 1906 Sargent was making a small fortune from his portraits and he possibly
could have gone without any more portrait commissions irregardless of his
mother's money (that might be a fun question to explore).
What we clearly know is Sargent was
always looking for a new challenges and the literature is full of information
that tells how Sargent didn't care much about making a lot of money. By
1903 when he exhibits 30 works at the Carfax Gallery in London, England,
comprised of watercolors and sketches, you can see Sargent thinking about
moving in a different direction -- as if he was testing the waters.
But his mother, I believe, loved
that he did portraits. She had been quite the social climber when John
was young (though never to rival the professional social climbers in New
York, Boston, and London) throwing parties to introduce him to influential
people when they traveled and I could quite imagine that she was very proud
of her son painting the richest and the most powerful of the time.
But Sargent hated society types and
anyone who put on heirs. He felt the most at home with his Spanish Gypsies,
his bohemian art friends, writers, musicians and actors as he did with
After his mother's death, every autumn
Sargent would travel to Europe with his sister Emily and one if not more
of a small circle of friends who included: the de Glehns, Miss Eliza Wedgwood,
Misses Barnard or Sargent's sister Vilot and her children. And they would
travel to Val d'aosta, Italy, Corfu, Majorca or Spain. It is said that
these trips comprised the happiest times of his life (Charteris
So although the bulk of the literature
establishes the time of Sargent's giving up portraits as 1907, I think
we can see a restlessness as early as 1903 and after the death of his mother
in 1906, the desire, or obligation to please her is no longer binding.
In a sense, Sargent is freed and it is that critical date, I believe,
we should pin the date of Sargent's decision to stop painting portraits
(not to imply that he didn't love his mother, for he very much did).
See the years in review 1905-06
Regarding JSS retiring from portraiture.
I find this a charming account. From pages 227 - 228 of the Olson JSS biography
By 1907 he had had enough.
At the age of fifty-one he shut his ledgers and hung a "closed" sign on
the door. It had been coming for a long time: "Painting a portrait
would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working," he
said to Jacques-Emil Blanche. "What a nuisance having to entertain the
sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched." He could not go on with
the lie any more. "I have vowed a vow", he wrote to Mrs
Curtis, "not to do any more portraits. . . it is to me positive bliss
to think that I shall soon be a free man." "No more paughtraits,"
he repeated to her son, using his individual spelling of the dreaded word,
". . . I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially
of the Upper Classes." To Lady Radnor he was as emphatic: "Ask me to paint
your gates, your fences, your barns, which I should gladly do, but not
the human face." His disenchantment reached its most cogent form with the
terse declaration, "No more mugs!", and later settled down in the definition
he inscribed on the flyleaf of the French edition of reproductions of his
work: "A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something
not quite right about the mouth."
And thus resolved "to devote my life
to something more satisfying" he submitted four portraits to the Academy
in 1908: an ex-prime minister (Balfour), a royal duke (HRH The Duke of
Connaught) and his Duchess, and one other (Mrs Huth Jackson); the following
year two more — Mrs William Waldorf Astor* and the Earl of Wemyss — and
a landscape. In 1910 he sent only landscapes. The great wheels of the portrait
works had come to a halt.
Thank you Bert. That was wonderful.
But did Sargent ever REALLY come to a halt in portraits?
The answer is no. Even the last day
of his life he was found doing one of his countless charcoal sketch-portraits
which he called "mugs" of Princess
Mary. And you find him cornered into doing full oil portraits such
Lawrence Lowell in 1923 and his last oil portrait four months before
his death in 1925 of Grace Elvina.
Part of the problem in identifying
when he stopped portraits is that he never really did -- not completely.
Though he certainly wanted to and he grew to even hate the "mugs" he did.
Inherently, Sargent had a good heart and as much as he wanted to, it was
hard for him to say no to his friends. The excerpt you sent shows a great
example of this:
"Ask me to paint your gates, your
fences, your barns, which I should gladly do, but not the human face."
He's pleading with her.
While reading Mount's book, I find
this paragraph about Sargent's mother's death.
Mrs. Sargent's estate was
small, only thirty thousand dollars, on the income from which both she
and Emily had been living in London. It was divided equally between John
and his two sisters. But the obvious intention of his mother had been to
care for Emily, her will touchingly stating that her son "through his great
talent" was able to provide for herself and Violet's husband could look
after her, while Emily would have nothing but this inheritance. She had
already given Emily her personal possessions for that reason and there were
really adequate means for Emily to live on, almost indefinitely, at her
modest rate. It must at this time have occurred to him, suddenly, how great
his own earnings were. Compared with his parents, he was fabulously rich.
Wow, what a find! I just had assumed
(which always gets me into trouble) that since JSS's parents hadn't been
working his entire life (I knew they weren't considered wealthy by aristocratic
standards) I assumed the estate of his mothers would have been a lot more
than that (of course $30,000 U.S. would have been a lot more in 1907 than
it is today). Still, it puts to bed my assumption that any inheritance
added to his decision to quit portraits.