JOHN SINGER SARGENT’S WILLIAM M. CHASE, N.A.: MAKING A CASE FOR PORTRAIT PAINTING IN THE AGE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
In 1902, students of William Merritt Chase commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint a portrait of their teacher that they intended to donate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the portrait, Chase stares intently at the viewer with a palette and paintbrushes in hand, presumably pausing in the midst of painting to scrutinize his canvas. Despite this pause in his handiwork, his focused facial expression implies that his mind remains active. By depicting Chase engaged in the mental and perceptive work that precedes the physical handling of paint, Sargent asserted the importance of skilled, artistic observation and refuted critics who characterized both Sargent and Chase’s work as facile and superficial. At the time, portrait painting was under threat by the increasingly popular automated medium of photography, which provided faster and more accurate depictions of sitters. Sargent’s portrait of Chase emphasizes the importance of observation and discernment and asserts the value of the portrait painter against the rise of photography. The circumstances of this commission presented Sargent with the opportunity to take charge of his own narrative within the genre for which he was most known and in which he held the most professional stake. As a commission intended for the Metropolitan Museum, the preeminent institution for art in America, Chase’s portrait allowed Sargent to align with the museum’s implicit interest in connoisseurship and the value of original works of art. Within this context, by both picturing and fostering close looking, Sargent prompted viewers to consider the intellectual work involved in the portrait’s creation, thereby asserting the value of painting over photography.
NotesDegree Awarded: M.A. Art. American University
Degree grantorAmerican University. Department of Art