Painting the Good Woman: A Timely View of Feminine Distinction

Frank Desch (1873-1934), La robe de boudoir, ca. 1919, Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches (framed)

In the summer of 2010 the Fenimore Art Museum (located in Cooperstown, NY) hosted a focused show of Sargent portraits that in many ways pre-figured the curatorial aims underpinning the Sargent show on view at the Met this past summer. Both venues explored an alternative view of the artist by exhibiting works that diverged from his better known formal portraiture. The latter works, large-scale bravura paintings of American Gilded Age titans and European nobility, are what generally come to mind when one thinks about Sargent.  Yet, a show of that type would have been glaringly out of step during that summer of recession-borne discontent.  

On far safer ground, the Fenimore exhibition, titled “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Woman,” cast Sargent as a sensitive artist on intimate terms with his sitters–a view not entirely in keeping with what is known of Sargent in his role as a successful “society portraitist.”  Seemingly more at ease, and perhaps less hampered by client expectations, Sargent’s portraits of women are more expressive and explore a wide range of narrative poses, compositional arrangements and painterly techniques than seen in his more formal commissioned work.  Of equal note, “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women” documents seismic shifts in women’s societal roles—within the larger context of a changing world economy and its impact on class hierarchies.  His sitters display a conflicted self-awareness—alternately excited with their burgeoning independence yet fearful of an uncertain future.

For Sargent to have represented women as he did when he did, and to do so with such keen insight, is further testament to his genius.  The female as subject in art has a long history in the western figurative tradition.  Yet given a historical preponderance of male practitioners and collectors, the pictorial depiction of women has generally privileged a sexualized male gaze—and represented women as coveted objects.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  The female as muse has inspired a wide range of artistic productions ranging from boudoir kitsch to highly evolved aesthetic masterpieces having lasting cultural significance.  Sargent’s work, and generally speaking portraiture in general, aspires to be the latter.  Hence when we consider portraiture featuring female subjects we imagine a practice that reaches beyond the depiction of women as an object of desire to express a broad range of valued cultural attributes and societal identities.

Jonathan M. Linton,
A Thoughtful Moment, 2003, Oil on linen, 46.5 x 34.5 inches (framed)

The Portraits, Inc. exhibition “Painting the Good Woman” explores this liberal motive with works by artists represented by Portraits, Inc. along with historical works borrowed from private and institutional collections—including the Salmagundi and National Arts Clubs.  Historical examples include a three-quarter standing portrait of Portraits, Inc. founder Lois Kenyon Shaw by the artist Sidney Dickinson and an enchanting work titled La Robe de Boudoir by Frank Desch.  Contemporary works include a recent portrait by Everett Raymond Kinstler of highly regarded philanthropist and art collector Iris Cantor.  Taken as a whole, the works on view offer a continuum of practice that privileges a joyous pictorial language—an art of balance, purity and serenity.  In a word they are “good.”

By extension, these works also aspire to be “good portraiture.”  What other words could better describe the artful expression that is Desch’s La Robe de Boudoir?  The work, like she, is a study of timeless grace, poise and harmony.  And we see that same aspirant dignity in the show’s contemporary works—such as Jonathan Linton’s A Thoughtful Moment and Patricia Watwood’s Portrait of Ann Sullins.    

Lastly, why ought Portraits, Inc. mount a show of “good women?”  The short answer is because Portraits, Inc. has lofty aims—we champion an art form that forgoes fugitive pleasures and transitory circumstances in its search for the poetic and eternal.  The works we show, primarily portraiture, feature subjects that are applicable to all the ages, in this instance noble women.  Yet, paradoxically, as one moves through the exhibition, from work to work and from past to present time period, one sees an effort to translate extant conventions into contemporary expressions—each and every work a painting about its own time.

For further information about the exhibition or commissioning a portrait by one of our artists, please 
e-mail us.  

By Michael Gormley

Portraits, Inc. was founded in 1942 in New York on Park Avenue. Over its 70-year history, Portraits, Inc. has carefully assembled a select group of the world’s foremost portrait artists offering a range of styles and prices. Recognized as the industry leader, Portraits, Inc. provides expert guidance for discerning clients interested in commissioning fine art portraits.