John Singer Sargent was noted for his portraiture and we’ve always found it to be a source of inspiration for our designs. Recently, we had the opportunity to visit the Tate Britain (aka Tate Gallery) in London where we viewed the Portrait of Mrs. Robert Harrison:
Because of the height that the picture was displayed, we almost missed it…Here’s a better view of the work, courtesy of the Tate:
When we entered the gallery where this picture is displayed, we found that it was very difficult to view because it was hung high up on the wall. The only way to get a full view without neck strain would have been to stand on the other side of the gallery, something that’s impossible with the constant crowds. Not the most optimal viewing experience, to be sure.
Turning to the portrait itself, the one thing that caught our eye was red portions of the dress, or rather, what appears to be a red surcoat or coat worn over a fairly conventional white day dress. It’s definitely a style we haven’t encountered before, especially for the 1880s. For a little insight, below are some comments from the Tate Britain website:
The Portrait of Mrs Robert Harrison was begun in 1886, shortly after Sargent had returned from a summer in France. Ormond has suggested that this painting is a bridge between the two dominant styles of late nineteenth-century French painting, Realism and Impressionism. The details of the head and hands are precise, yet the colouring of the portrait shows a move away from the old masterly emphasis of Sargent’s style, inspired by his friendship with Monet and the work of the Impressionist artists he had seen in France.
As for the dress, the Tate notes the following:
Following the exhibition of this portrait at the Royal Academy in 1886, The Athenaeum reported that ‘An exercise in white, red and grey; is, so far as this goes, excellent, although it is decidedly unpleasant as a household companion, and, for the owner’s sake, we hope unjust to the lady’. Her unusual dress was also commented upon. The columnist for the Evesham Journal and Four Shires Advertiser exclaimed that she had never seen Mrs Harrison ‘wearing such red wing-like appendages to her costume, which look as though about to expand and convey her to the regions of Mephistopheles’
Not particularly positive. Of course, Sargent could have simply added them in, artistic license and all, but then again, perhaps it was some simple affectation by Mrs. Robinson herself. Either way, the pops of red definitely catch the eye and makes this portrait more interesting striking, elevating it out of the conventional. Sometimes one finds the most interesting details in painting when it’s least expected. 🙂