A Personal Portrait by John Singer Sargent

  • September 13, 2018 08:07

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Portrait of Laurence Millet by John Singer Sargent
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans
Portrait of Laurence Millet by John Singer Sargent (detail)
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans
Signed, dated and inscribed “To Mrs. Millet 1887 John S. Sargent” (upper edge)
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is widely regarded as one of the most important painters of portraits in the history of art. His name calls to mind images of Gilded Age beauties or aristocratic children in flowing gowns and formal dress, and he commanded a high price for his highly popular work. Yet, perhaps more intriguing than his formal portraits are those works that he composed outside of his formal commissions. Gypsy dancers, blossoming gardens, close friends and family are the subjects of these works, all of which offer a glimpse into the life of this art historic great. M.S. Rau Antiques is proud to offer one such work: Sargent's 1887 Portrait of Laurence Millet.

Sargent's subject was the son of Sargent’s close friend Frank Millet, a fellow painter who tragically died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. Sargent was devoted to Frank and the Millet family - they spent summers together at the picturesque Cotswolds village of Broadway. The Millet home and studio there was the center of an Anglo-American artists' colony; artists and writers such as Henry James, Edwin Abbey, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sargent all came to stay and work.

The period during which Portrait of Laurence Millet was painted was a significant one for John Singer Sargent. He had come to visit the Millet home in Broadway following one of the greatest scandals of his career - his famed Portrait of Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was shown at the Paris Salon in 1884, and it had caused such a stir that he was forced to flee Parisian society for England. In the full-length portrait, Sargent captured socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau clad in a provocative, form-fitting black gown, with one of its narrow straps having fallen off her shoulder (Sargent later repainted the strap into its proper place). Madame X's state of dishabille, combined with the work's loose brushstrokes and unconventional composition, was simply too much for the art world in Paris.

When Sargent's commissions for new works dried up following the scandal, he retreated to his friend's home in Broadway, painting this intimate portrait of Millet's son, along with a number of other significant works. Free from the formal portraits that had dominated his career, Sargent was able to embark on an important period of stylistic exploration. Perhaps the greatest masterwork to come from this period was his celebrated Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Britain, London), which he painted in the Millets’ garden. In fact, Sargent's original model for the work was Millet's five-year-old daughter, dark-haired Katherine, though she was later replaced by the blonde-haired daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard. Painted en plein air at dusk, the fairytale-like painting reveals Sargent’s experimentation with what was then a modern and wholly unique painting technique – a mix of the Impressionist and Academic styles.

Just a year later, Sargent would compose his Portrait of Laurence Millet, in which the same innovative mix of styles is seen. The work exudes the freedom and tenderness that comes from time spent with a close friend's family. Young Laurence appears innocent, yet self-assured, with his wide-eyed gaze emitting the wonder of youth. Seated with one foot crossed over his knee, the young boy sports a charming sailor outfit, while his dark locks and black suit perfectly frame the youthful glow of his face.

Inscribed on the top painting, “To Mrs. Millet 1887 John S. Sargent,” the painting remained in the collection of Mrs. Millet for the duration of her life. It is one of a number of works Sargent painted of the Millet family, though he never painted one of his friend Frank before his tragic end. A portrait of Mrs. Millet is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while a similar portrait of Laurence's younger brother, John, belongs to the San Diego Museum of Art.

About M.S. Rau Antiques:
M.S. Rau Antiques has spent over 100 years earning the trust of discerning collectors world-wide. Located in the heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, our peerless showroom houses one of the world’s most extensive and stunning collections of important fine art by artists such as Monet and Rockwell, 18th-and 19th-century antiques, and breathtaking jewelry, including rare colored diamonds.

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Beauty, Rarity, History: The M.S. Rau Blog

A New Orleans institution for over 100 years, M.S. Rau is among the premier fine art and antiques galleries in the world. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, our gallery overflows with incredible antiques by names including Tiffany & Co., Paul Revere and Fabergé. Our unparalleled selection of important, original paintings and sculpture spans the 16th through the 21st century, including legendary artists such as Brueghel, Monet and Rockwell, while our diverse selection of exquisite jewels, including rare colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies is without equal.

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