-- American painter
x 77 cm
painting is an autograph
copy of the painting entitled The Honorable Mrs Charles Russell,
by Sargent in 1900 and now in a Californian
private collection [Thumbnail]. In 1889 the sitter,
great-grand-daughter of one
of the founders of the London Daily News, had married the leading
Sir Charles Russell, famous for winning the case against Oscar Wilde
led to the poet's imprisonment.
"The mysterious and
face of Mrs Russell is characteristic of Sargent's elegant female
The palette of ochres, silvers and pale pink is rather sober, while the
rapid brushstroke is a characteristic example of Sargent's great skill
John Singer Sargent
first painted Mrs Charles Russell in 1900, exhibiting the portrait (San
Francisco, California, Private Collection), among his eight entries at
the Royal Academy the following year. He was at the apex of his career
as a portrait painter, but would soon turn away from the profession,
tiring of painting images of the fatuous elite. His portrait of Mrs.
Russell, however, the critics quickly noticed, was a singularly
haunting, introspective image, a portrait that provoke a number of
unanswered questions. "What he tells us of this pathetic face is very
interesting and very sad," wrote one reviewer, while another observed
that "the face is of extraordinary character, infinite pathos, and a
masterpiece of painting [...] the face haunts us, with its sad eyes and
intellectual distress. Who shall read the secret so surely set there?"
Little is known of the enigmatic sitter. Mrs. Russell, neé Adah
Williams, was the granddaughter of Sir Joshua Walmsley, one of the
founders of the London Daily News. In 1889 she married Sir Charles
Russell, a union that produced a single daughter. Her husband was a
solicitor, best known today as instructor for Lord Carson during the
trial in which Carson successfully defended the marquis of Queensbury
against the charges of libel brought by Oscar Wilde. The acquittal led
to the writer's own criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and early death
in 1900, the year Mrs. Russell was painted.
Describing the painting in 1925, William Howe Downs wrote of the
"nervous face, the long, slim neck, and the sensitive hands" as well as
the sad eyes and mouth. The tense, nervous quality found in Mrs.
Russell, recent scholarship has pointed out, is a salient feature in
many of Sargent's portraits. The perceptive critic, Royal Cortissoz,
writing in 1924, considered it the very aspect that made Sargent
"modern" and that it identified him with the spirit of his time. Each
century, Cortissoz felt, had a prevailing impulse. While the mood of
the 18th was "cerebral," "nervous" was the quality of the 19th. "What
Sargent has had to portray has been a restless race," he wrote, "the
conclusively representative Sargent in this matter of modernity is the
alert 'Mrs. Boit' or the tense 'Mrs. Charles Russell."
Two drawings are known to exist which relate to the painting, one in
the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other, in The Harvard University
Art Museums. They capture the gesture of the sitter, but in each, the
poignancy of Mrs. Russell's features is only suggested. In the
drawings, however, most noticeably in the Boston version, the hands
assume a greater importance and reveal in a nervous fluttering of
fingers, the apprehensive tenseness of Mrs. Russell.
The Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza 1908 replica of Mrs Charles Russell,
painted at the very time Sargent abandoned his career as a portraitist,
remains as puzzling as the sitter. No mention of it seem to have
appeared in the Sargent literature. More vivaciously executed than the
1900 portrait, it nevertheless duplicates, almost stroke by stroke,
Sargent's handling in the earlier version. Only the lamp, which still
remains in the artist's family, is indicated in a more cursory manner.
The signature, which has been questioned as unusual for the artist, is
now placed below the ledge of the table rather than at the bottom left
of the canvas-hardly typical in the work of a copyist. While few
replicas of Sargent's portraits exist, the artist twice painted Baron
Russell of Killowen, Mrs. Russell's father-in-law, in 1899 and a
replica in 1900. The one clue to the painting's significance, the
inscription "Alice Copley, Boston" on the back of the canvas, has so
far proven unproductive.
Kenneth W. Maddox
Special thanks go to
xin abon firstname.lastname@example.org
for telling me about four paintings
the Thyssen-Bornemiseza museum.