|Subject: On Sargent's Trip to
the Vanderbilts, Could he Have Moonlighted and Painted Here-to-Date Undiscovered
|(Although unlikely, this question was
posed to me regarding Sargent's trip to Asheville, North Carolina when
he visited the Vanderbilts for a commission. Could it be possible that
there might be undiscovered portraits that Sargent did moonlighting from
his Vanderbilt commissions?
My answer dealt with more specific aspects
of the possible paintings in question which I felt were not Sargent's.
As a side issue I sent the curious query to Bert and he responded with
this most amazing and thoughtful answer)
Fascinating. I couldn't resist doing
a little research on this. Perhaps this will illuminate the possibility
of JSS having done those two portraits for the ancestors of your mysterious
JSS was indeed in Asheville, North
Carolina, in 1895.
From John Singer Sargent: A Biography
by Charles Merrill Mount - First Edition (1955)
From page 212 - (The year is 1895)
Sargent passed through New York
with Abbey, where Stanford White spoke of a portrait of his eight-year-old
son, Lawrence, who previously had put his finger on a wet canvas in Tite
Street. That never materialized. Instead, George Vanderbilt commandeered
him with an invitation to his estate in the Carolinas, there to do portraits
of Richard Morris Hunt, the architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape
architect, who were responsible for his magnificent establishment. Henry
James, on a later visit to the estate, described it as “the extraordinary
colossal French Chateau of George Vanderbilt in the said N.C. mountains
- the house 2500 feet in the air, and a thing of the high Rotheschild manner,
but of a size to contain two or three Mentmores and Waddesdons.”
Invited for May 15, Sargent was soon at work on two huge full-lengths,
which he elected to do outdoors. The finished paintings were so striking
that Vanderbilt had a three-quarter-length portrait of himself done as
well. On the completion of his work in North Carolina, Sargent was bound
From John Singer Sargent: His Portrait
by Stanley Olson - 1986 - First Edition
From page 193 - the page heading
The pleasure earned in Boston was
short-lived: three weeks after the first cheers went up, Sargent left for
Vanderbilt’s new Renaissance chateau, Biltmore, in Asheville, North Carolina,
to satisfy the commissions he had managed to avoid the previous year. He
had been instructed to immortalize the architect of the park, Frederick
Law Olmstead (1822— 1903), and the architect of the house, Richard Morris
Hunt (1827—95) — two men worthy of immortality: Olmstead was responsible
for much of the deliberate civic beauty ordained as some pastoral relief
from all the building that was filling up Manhattan and Back Bay, and Hunt
had shown himself to be the master of poaching arts he handed down to younger
men like McKim. And when Sargent faced these two elderly giants he was
further instructed not to believe his eyes. “My campaign here announces
itself ominously,” he wrote [May 1895] to his friend Mrs j. Montgomery
Sears in Boston, “— both wives prove to me that I must imagine thus that
their husbands look at all like what they look like at present — totally
different really, and the backgrounds, a stately garden for one and a venerable
place for the other are at present red earth stuck with specimen vegetables
and scaffoldings covered with niggers.” Each portrait was, in truth,
a double one and none of the four subjects was quite as he saw them. “Sargent
arrives at his best by many substitutions,” James astutely informed a previous
sitter,3 which was fine when it was a matter of subtraction, but
at Biltmore he was asked to add as well, and both portraits suffered. It
was an unfortunate reminder that portraiture was worse than enforced collaboration;
it was vanity's butler. And it was also a fortunate reminder that he had
got into a way of thinking about such employment as nothing more significant
than a job of work, to take money. The month he was in Biltmore his
mind was still in Boston; he was loyal to what he valued most. He
wrestled with the welcome problem of where The Triumph of Religion might
go next. He eagerly plotted his next course of study. Two days after leaving
Biltmore, on 18 june, he sailed to Gibraltar. There he saw his mother,
who was recovering from an attack of peritonitis, and a month later, with
her safe retirement in Aix-les-Bains where she felt entirely at home, he
headed back to London at a measured pace — “seeing as much as I can on
the way”, he wrote to George Vanderbilt (21 July 1895) from Madrid.~ In
other words, he, too, returned to a much-loved comfort — researching.
From page 193 (end of the first paragraph
on this page to indicate that JSS was already disenchanted with portraits)
“At the end of August 1895 he (JSS)
began the quick march, to portraiture’s unrelenting cadence - reluctantly,
In the Charles Merrill Mount "Portraits
in oils" list, the following are found for 1895
951 - Ada Rehan, signed. 93 x 50,
952 - Mrs. Roller, signed. 88 x
43 ½ , Knoedler
953 - Mrs. Russell Cooke, signed.
35 x 27, Mr. Hacker
954 - Mrs. George Batten singing,
inscribed: To Mrs. Batten John S. Sargent. 34 x 16 ½ , Glasgow
955 - Richard Morris Hunt, signed
and dated. Biltmore
956 - Frederick Law Olmsted, signed.
957 - George W. Vanderbilt. Biltmore
958 - Gardiner Greene Hammond, Jr.,
signed and dated. 28 x 22, Mrs. MacKinky Helm
959 - Helen Sears, signed and dated.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
9510 - Eleonora Duse (unfinished).
23 X 19, Wildenstein, Scott & Fowles
9511 - Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt
(Mrs. Peter Gerry). Mrs. Richard Townsend
Incidentally, there are no non-portraits
in oil listed for 1895
Thus we can see that JSS was at Biltmore
from May 15 to June 16 in 1895.
During that time he painted three
portraits; the Olmstead, the Hunt and the three-quarter-length portrait
of George Vanderbilt. He was there four weeks. Surely the first three
days and the last three days or so - amounting to almost one week of time
- would be taken up with settling in and packing to go - meeting his patron
and subjects, admiring the chateau and general acclimatization. This leaves
three weeks to create the three portraits for Vanderbilt. Would he
really have had to time to be driven into Asheville periodically and do
an additional two portraits - one of which [your writer] describes as "a
massive portrait of eight children" ? How would Vanderbilt have reacted
to his guest leaving on a regular basis? As well, JSS was already losing
his desire for portraits and was preoccupied with Boston; would he really
want to do another pair of portraits?
Frankly, I doubt if they are Sargent's
work in spite of what "Birdie" says. And yet........... (I'd sure love
to see images of these two works.)
Do let me know if anything else comes
Hope you find something of value
Subject: There were 6 total paintings
owned by Biltmore estate
From: Brian Hawley
B rian.Ha email@example.com>
Date : Thu, 4 Oct 2001
[Editor's Note -- Brian
sent two wonderful letters, the first was on the 4th and the second was
on the 8th. I have combined both meshing them together somewhat for readability
Natasha, I found your fantastic site
about Sargent and have been avidly reading it recently. I am
currently doing research on George Vanderbilt, and his amazing home
Biltmore here in NC. As I am sure you know he owned 6 Sargent portraits.
Can you give me more information about these oils? So far I only
have been able to learn who the subject was, and about the time they were
painted. Any help you can provide would be great! I am
interested in the cost of a portrait such as those at Biltmore in 1890s
dollars. I have read the write-up you give to Sargent's time at Biltmore
and enjoyed it immensely!
The current portraits at Biltmore
by Sargent consist of:
1) Mrs. William Henry
(Kissam) Vanderbilt 69" X 51 1/2" (his mother) painted around 1888
so I am told. This I have noticed is not on your site. I wonder
if it was painted along with her daughters Margaret Sheapard.
These next 3 were painted at Biltmore
2) George Washington Vanderbilt
42" X 26" painted around 1895. This is the smallest Sargent in
the home and I have always wondered why?
Morris Hunt, 91 1/2" X 60", the architect almost if not completely
life sized painted 1895
Law Olmstead also nearly life-sized 91" X 61 1/4, painted 1895,
this one is slightly smaller than the Hunt portrait.
I am surprised you don't
mention or have photos of these next two paintings.
Here is a bit more background info.
Mrs. Benjamin P. Kissam and Mrs. W.H. Vanderbilt were sisters. Both
appear to have been painted around 1888, about the time Margaret Sheaperd
(Mrs. W.H. V.'s daughter) was painted. It appears that Sargent painted
the 2 sisters and one daughter all about the same time. I would also
suppose that this is the first time George had contact with Sargent.
George did not commission the Kissam portrait, he acquired it later from
Mrs. Kissam's daughter Ethel. I am currently trying to find
out more about how, when and why he received this painting. Sadly
I am not currently able to get a good image for the Mrs. Benjamin Kissam
portrait. I do have OK images for the Mrs. W.H. Vanderbilt portrait
and Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon. I will send those tonight.
5) His Aunt Mrs. Benjamin P. Kissam
(I don't have the dimensions) painted around 1888.
6) His Cousin Mrs. Walter Rathbone
Bacon 81 1/2" X 38 1/2" (These last were acquired I believe after
1896 but I am not certain of the date)
The Bacon painting is a favorite
of mine with Mrs. W.H. V. coming second. Mrs. Bacon's portrait was also
enjoyed by Paul Ford the novelist who was a good friend of George Vanderbilt.
On his visits to the home he would blow kisses to the painting! George
commissioned the Bacon painting which was completed in 1896. George acquired
his mother's portrait apparently right after her death. I will
send a photo have of the tapestry gallery taken in 1895 or 1896 that shows
both his Sargent painting and his mother's on the wall.
Also you mention the wellhead that
Sargent painted Hunt standing next too might not have yet been setup or
even shipped down from NYC since the final flurry of construction was going
on. However George Vanderbilt did own a 13th century unpolished Italian
marble wellhead that is on the site today.
It is also certain that the wellhead
in the Sargent painting is nearly if not completly identical to the wellhead
on the property today. See the photo of me taken in a Hunt
pose in the fall of 1998. it is my belief that the wellhead in the
painting is that very one still on the property.
You may know that George Vanderbilt
inherited a HUGE three million dollar art collection from his father (William
Henry Vanderbilt). This collection was accumulated from the late
1870's until 1885. After some financial trouble in the panic of 1907
George had to sell most of this art. Sadly his father had relied
on outside advice on the purchase of these works and by 1907 most were
worth less than the original purchase price. I surmise that George
realized less than one million from the sales. It is however fortunate
that the family portraits and some cherished other works were not sold.
These exceptions to the sale obviously include the Sargents. My point
is similar to your essay concerning eBay and the possible Sargent
forgery. I have always found it sad that William Vanderbilt did not
pick up the fantastic works available in the 1880s. Even with unlimited
resources and good advice, art collecting it seems can be a difficult endeavor.
Have you had the opportunity to go
to Biltmore and see the Sargent paintings?