The Sargent painting (1890) — as it stood recently in the Amon Carter”s Collection Study Room. It will hang in the main lobby, opposite the museum”s iconic Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington (1889) — a sign of how highly the Amon Carter values it. Photo by Jerome Weeks
This morning, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art will unveil a major new, multi-million-dollar acquisition. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the painting may become a signature work for the Fort Worth museum.
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The Amon Carter’s new painting is a rare work. It’s notable for who painted it, who’s portrayed in it and who owned it for more than a century.
The painter was John Singer Sargent, arguably the top American portrait artist in 1890 when this painting was done. More than his undeniable talent and his skillful cultivation of career connections, “Sargent had an international reputation,” says Margi Conrads, the Amon Carter”s deputy director of art and research. “And for America in the late 19th century, that was a very important cachet.”
We Americans were in our aspirational phase. We desperately wanted our artists to be hailed as good as any European – even as the Fricks, the Morgans and the Vanderbilts were buying up every European artwork they could. Sargent reached that level of success and acclaim, painting for royalty, celebrities and robber baron industrialists.
And his portrait subject, Edwin Booth, achieved the same level of recognition as well – with the added infamy of being the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. But Edwin was also the leading American actor of the age. He pioneered a new, more natural style of acting and helped popularize Shakespeare throughout America. In 1887, three years before this portrait, Booth performed Hamlet, his most acclaimed role – on a tour in Texas that included a stop in Dallas.
Immediately after the Lincoln assassination rocked the country, Booth quit the stage – only to return after poverty loomed for him, his family and his theater employees. His dignity, his obvious suffering redeemed him in the eyes of many; he was welcomed back by ecstatic crowds. (He refused to have John Wilkes spoken of in his presence for the rest of his life but also kept a small portrait of his brother in his bedroom).
Andrew Walker, the Amon Carter’s director, sees the Booth portrait as a case of two leading artists according each other a kind of mutual recognition: “I do think this has a sense of achievement. This was Sargent, really at the height of his career, being asked as an artist himself to present, for their peers, another artist of great stature.”
Those peers were the members of the Players Club. It’s the private social club for artists and actors established in 1888 by Booth and fifteen others, including Mark Twain. In fact, the Players’ townhouse, which still stands near Gramercy Park in New York, was Booth’s home. He deeded it to the club while he still lived upstairs. Booth’s fellow Players commissioned this portrait, and for more than 100 years, it had pride of place there (below).
“The Players Club was ambitious. They wanted to be considered gentlemen,” says Rebecca Lawton, the Amon Carter’s curator of painting and sculpture. The club was intended to put artists, writers and actors on the same level as the city’s other clubs of intellectuals, socialites and professionals, a sign of aspiration and arrival. First, they had renowned architect Sanford White – a club member – re-do the aging mansion. Then – what better way to signal their status “other than to hire the greatest artist of your generation?”
They got lucky – Sargent spent most of his life in Europe and had achieved international notoriety six years before with his scandalous portrait of “Madame X.” He was highly in-demand, but he was also spending a great deal of time in Boston painting huge murals on commission for the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard’s Widener Library (at the time, murals were considered more distinguished than portraiture, so Sargent was trying to prove he was more than a facile craftsman and high-society chronicler).
Still, the timing almost didn’t work out; Booth and Sargent finally met in the painter’s New York studio (though in the painting he’s depicted standing in front of the Players Club’s central fireplace – embossed with the masks of comedy and tragedy).
In recent years, though, the venerable club has run into financial trouble, including complicated dealings, disagreements and settlements with a charitable group and library collections. What’s more, its membership has declined, and it’s had to slowly repair and renovate its crumbling townhouse, a National Historic Landmark. Consequently, it’s sold off its Shakespeare folios and, in 2002, the Players sold the Booth portrait to a private collector.
The Amon Carter says it paid between $4 and 6 million for it. That would be a handsome bargain. Sargent’s paintings have fetched $11 million, even $23 million.
It’s also a bargain because the Amon Carter will be unveiling what amounts to a ‘rediscovered’ Sargent. It’s been in private hands for 123 years. Most people, even curators and historians, have only seen it in photos. Margi Conrads declares, “When it’s printed on the page, you can’t really understand the immensity of the scale, which is quite exciting when you personally get to interact with it.”
The Amon Carter already has a Sargent; it’s a lovely, smaller portrait of a young daughter of the wealthy Vanderbilts, which it acquired 12 years ago. In contrast, the Booth portrait is 7 feet tall – one of his largest full-scale portraits. That’s partly because it hung over a fireplace. We look up at it, and Sargent has worked the perspective so that Booth appears closer to his real-life 5 foot, seven inches (though he’s also been slenderized by the painter).
The portrait has a somber grandeur to it. Booth stands casually next to a fireplace – as if he’s in a stage drama. But even as Booth is depicted as a magisterial man of means, Sargent has matched the red of the actor’s eyes with the red embers in the dying fire. Booth does not look well.
Rebecca Lawton says it was hardly a secret at the time. Booth had already had one stroke.
“Right about 1889, people said, ‘This will be the last time you see Edwin Booth act’ – because it was a general consensus that his light was burning out. So don’t you think it’s brilliant of Sargent to have used that motif of the fire burning down?”
The next year, Booth played his last Hamlet. He retired from the stage. Three years after the portrait was done, he was dead at 59.
The full release:
John Singer Sargent Masterpiece Acquired by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art
FORT WORTH, Texas—The Amon Carter Museum of American Art announces today the acquisition of a major, full-length painting by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The work, titled Edwin Booth from 1890, is a portrait of the great 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth (1833–1893). It was commissioned by members of The Players in New York City, a private club for actors founded by Booth and his friends in 1888, and remained there until 2002, when debt forced the club to sell it to a private collector. Now owned by the Amon Carter, Edwin Booth is on view in the museum’s main gallery.
“Sargent is one of the most important American artists and we are thrilled to add another one of his masterpieces to our collection,” says Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter. “We were particularly intrigued by this painting as it is among his most brilliantly conceived full-length male portraits.
“At first glance, Sargent’s Booth appears so alive that we can easily envision him delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet, one of his signature roles,” Walker continues. “Upon further study, we discover that the painting is a carefully nuanced work of art, one of quiet emotion.”
Sargent created a masterful, immortal image of the revered actor—the 19th century’s greatest American tragedian and older brother of John Wilkes Booth—while also giving us a glimpse of Booth’s personality, according to Margi Conrads, deputy director of art and research.
“In this painting, Sargent channels his knowledge of European old master artists, especially Diego Velázquez, but the conception is entirely his own,” says Conrads. “Sargent’s Booth is both heroic and informal, alternating between public persona and private individual. The artist executed just what his patrons requested, a picture for posterity to be admired by present and future generations.”
The artist presents Booth in front of the grand fireplace in the club’s hallway, a place where Booth frequently stood giving toasts. (Booth, however, posed for the portrait in the artist’s studio a few blocks away.) Sargent painted the 5″ 7” actor life size, although he thinned the figure’s hips and legs to adjust for the painting’s original viewing height above the mantle in the club’s reading room. Booth appears simultaneously imposing and informal—larger than life, but equally gracious and meditative. Dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, not a stage costume, his attitude is relaxed, but his stance expresses latent energy and nervous tension.
In Edwin Booth, we find the keys to Sargent’s great success, according to painting and sculpture curator Rebecca Lawton.
“Sargent’s brilliant finessing of color and brushstroke pervades the painting,” Lawton says. “He echoes the duality of Booth’s character in the juxtaposition of the hot brick fireplace and the cool marble surrounding it. The dazzling strokes of salmon in the fire’s embers and the daring streak of blue on Booth’s shirt contrast beautifully against the careful modeling of his face and hands.”
Edwin Booth joins another masterful Sargent in the museum’s collection, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1888), which was acquired in 1999.
“Given the elegance and panache of his female subjects, Sargent’s talent for male portraiture is frequently underestimated,” says Conrads. “It’s our hope that by having this painting available to a broader audience, we can help extend the appreciation of Sargent’s great talent.”
As the first life-size portrait to enter the collection, the painting offers a broader context for the social and cultural fabric of the Gilded Age.
“Booth acted on stages throughout the United States, bringing Shakespeare to countless people,” says Walker. “Many of the works in our painting collection focus on how the country was shaped from a landscape perspective. This painting complements that story nicely, featuring a person who greatly influenced the nation’s cultural heritage.”
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is always free. More information at www.cartermuseum.org.
About John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Born to expatriate American parents in Florence, Italy, John Singer Sargent remained abroad—primarily in London—most of his life. His reputation as an emerging artist of talent escalated meteorically with the 1884 exhibition of his mesmerizing and notoriously seductive portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, popularly known as Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art). During his trip to America in 1887 to paint portraits on commission, he received his first solo exhibition in Boston at the St. Botolph Club; his reception there was both critically and popularly acclaimed. Throughout his life Sargent traveled extensively, shifting among exotic European locales where he would sketch and paint. By 1907, tired of the incessant commissions that attended his vast popularity as a portraitist, he vowed to abandon them in favor of other artistic interests, including landscape painting and watercolor. During his later years, Sargent concentrated on the murals he designed for the Boston Public Library. Following his death in London, three memorial exhibitions were immediately organized—at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Royal Academy in London.