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The Face of the Madonna and the Eyes of a Child

On Sargent's "Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler"

John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), 1893, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chanler A. Chapman, 1980.71

Set against a russet wall in a second-floor gallery, John Singer Sargent’s Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler gazes out at passersby, her stare by turns fixed and inescapable. Elegantly attired, Chanler glows in a sumptuous, leg of mutton-sleeved dress; her clasped hands pin down two brocade cushions. The work, a symphony of solid and billowing forms, reveals as much about its enigmatic sitter as it does its reserved artist.

Chanler, who, in Sargent’s encapsulation, had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” sat for her portrait in London, which the twenty-six-year-old New Yorker was visiting for her brother’s wedding. Elizabeth, who lost her mother as a child, was, from an early age, left to help care for her seven siblings, a strength of will suggested in her probing, somber gaze. In Sargent’s hands, this counterbalance between young and old, curious and remote, is conveyed in the clean lines of the gilt sofa back—an order that gives way to loose blushes of color in the richly layered cushions and dress skirt below.

For all his deftness in capturing the likeness of Chanler and others, though, Sargent surely had his detractors. Of the criticisms leveled against him, one common refrain tended to his sitters, themselves emblems of the highest echelons of society. In his essay “Me, Them, and You,” writer E. M. Forster said of a London exhibition of Sargent portraits, “Gazing at each other over our heads, [the sitters] said, ‘What would the country do without us? We have got the decorations and the pearls…we have the largest houses and eat the best food…and ours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory.’” Sargent’s success owed much to these portraits of society’s sophisticates, to be sure, but to reduce his works as elitist misses the artistic sensibility that is Sargent’s. His portraits, laden as they are with metaphor, are not mere snapshots of a class out of reach. Rather, they are character studies, carefully calibrated compositions of the human psyche—compositions that express, as only he can, the intricacies of a sitter’s personality in subtleties as deliberate and delicate as a pair of clasped hands.

On a recent afternoon in the galleries, a woman is sitting in a bench opposite Chanler’s portrait, rapt in a silent dialogue all her own. Others approach the work, taking a minute to read the label before standing a few steps back, eyes affixed on Chanler’s. This afternoon, the portrait evokes a kind of mystifying majesty, its stark coloring playing off the surrounding scarlet walls. In a gallery across the way, some visitors breeze by without paying the portrait any mind. But, of those who do catch Chanler’s eye, even those in a hurry to see another room, stop, if momentarily, to exchange with her a glance or two, as if to let the sitter search or, at the very least, acknowledge, them.

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