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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Sargent, Madame X, and Winston S. Churchill

From Washington Lawyer, May 2013

By Jacob A. Stein


On the sixth floor of the United States District Court is the Ceremonial Courtroom. The walls of the courtroom are covered with portraits of judges who served on the court.

When a judge retires, his or her law clerks select an established portrait artist to do the portrait. When the portrait is finished, friends of the judge are invited to the courtroom for the portrait’s unveiling. The artist is nervous, as he or she should be. Will the judge be pleased with the portrait? Is the resemblance accurate? Is the portrait just commonplace like any other commercial portrait?

The artist knows that his painting is not in the class of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Every portrait painter knows of Sargent. He was the American who studied in Paris and then went to London where he lived most of his life.

In Paris, in 1884, he thought he would get more attention by putting on display the portrait of a woman well–known in Paris, Madame Pierre Gautreau. In the portrait, she is in full figure, shoulders bare. Her dress reveals and hides at the same time. She was referred to by those in the know as Madame X.

Sargent’s painting was put on display. It was not well received. It was too revealing. Sargent was embarrassed and he thought his career was damaged. He left Paris and went to live in London. He sold Madame X to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it remains on display.

In London, Sargent quickly gathered a wide reputation. It was said that Sargent’s paintings jump right off the canvas. The British aristocrats and the people of wealth wanted a Sargent portrait.

A number of Sargent’s paintings are here in Washington. The one I like is Breakfast in the Loggia, in the Freer Gallery of Art. You will see two women conversing. Judge for yourself the skill of the artist. There are other paintings: Madame Edouard Pailleron, 1879, and Mrs. Henry White, 1883, bothat The Corcoran Gallery of Art.

madamexPortrait painting at times is a dangerous occupation. Winston S. Churchill, on his 80th birthday, was to receive his portrait. It was commissioned by Parliament.

The portrait painter was Graham Sutherland, a distinguished artist. When the portrait was unveiled, Churchill, a painter himself, immediately disliked it. He sarcastically said the painting was a remarkable example of modern art. Later, his wife, Clementine, destroyed the painting.

A hundred years ago when photography came on the scene, portrait painters were afraid their profession would be threatened. Photographers opened studios filled with camera equipment, complicated lighting, the required chemicals, and dark rooms. Many photographs were taken of the subject.

Here in Washington, many years ago, the Harris & Ewing studio at 1313 F Street did good work. It declared itself as “Photographer to Presidents.” I recall that at Central High School, the graduating valedictorian was honored by a Harris & Ewing portrait.

When Harris & Ewing closed its doors in 1955, it gave its collection of 700,000 glass and film negatives to the Library of Congress. The materials cover Washington people, events, and architecture during the period 1905–1945 and consist of about 50,000 news photographs and 20,000 studio portraits of notable people. Approximately 28,000 negatives have been processed and are available for printing from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

The portrait painters survived photography. Portrait artistry has an element the camera cannot catch.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].