American painter John Singer Sargent was born 159 years ago today. The year he turned 28, the young artist exhibited a portrait of the notorious Parisian socialite Virginie Avegno Gautreau under the evocative title, Madame X (currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), at the 1884 Paris Salon. Critics decried both the painter and sitter for Sargent’s brazen depiction of the woman’s seductive appearance. Sargent was so upset by the event that he traveled to England to escape his detractors.
In Sussex, Sargent was engaged by Albert Vickers to produce a series of portraits of the wealthy industrialist’s family. That summer Sargent began to paint his wife, Edith. As former Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art at VMFA, David Park Curry, notes: Mrs. Albert Vickers (VMFA) can be seen as distinct counterpoint to the scandalous Madame X that caused the young artist so much public embarrassment. While both Madame X and Mrs. Albert Vickers are in gray and black tones, demonstrating Sargent’s admiration of the 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, the later portrait, in contrast to the first, exudes modesty and elegance. Her gown, which was of her own creation, combines elements of English 17th and 19th century fashion. Mrs. Vickers also holds a magnolia blossom in her right hand. Flowers, along with fruit, were traditionally used in female portraiture to represent a woman’s nurturing and refined temperament.
Sargent later wrote that the portrait of Mrs. Vickers “rather retrieved me.” Indeed, he believed that the modest English portrait, the first of many he made in the country in which he would live for the remainder of his life, salvaged his career. For the next four decades he produced a prolific amount of art and accrued the reputation of an international, celebrity painter. In VMFA’s American Art Gallery, Mrs. Vickers’ pensive gaze still looks out, as she must have once at the painter whose career hung in the balance.