Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman)

1893

John Singer Sargent

According to Sargent, twenty-six-year old Elizabeth Chanler had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child.” This portrait shows a beautiful, well-bred woman who has learned to be strong. When Elizabeth was still a girl, her mother died, leaving her to help care for seven younger brothers and sisters. Sargent painted her while she was in London for a brother’s wedding, and the artist composed the portrait as if to suggest a turmoil of emotions in his sitter.

The top half of the portrait is ordered and still. Elizabeth’s gaze is direct, her face centered between two paintings: a Madonna and Child and a figure of an old woman copied from Frans Hals. But the lower half is full of tension. Her arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows seem to wrestle with one another; only her clasped fingers and elbows keep everything under control. Perhaps the artist wished to show Elizabeth as a woman who, despite early hardships, was neither maiden nor matron. Sargent was often dismissed by his contemporaries as a “society portraitist,” but his paintings always convey the human story behind the image.

On display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The first time I went to The Smithsonian American Art Museum and I saw a John Singer Sargent with my own eyes I wept

It was this painting

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler by John Singer Sargent

I was 21 years old and I had been studying art at university for 4 years but for the first time in my life I understood what real art is