John Singer Sargent and I

applying a coat of zinc white (mostly avoid the lead these days) atop two thin layers of animal skin glue

A woman contacted me to ask about having her portrait painted in a Victorian dress that she had a black and white photocopy of. She wanted the dress to be blue. She mentioned having photos of herself that I could work from. I asked to see the visual material. She sent me photos off of an i-phone. The photos of her were small, but clear. She had a beautiful smile….the image of the dress was a different story. It was a rather  worn photocopy and difficult to see any detail on the dress. It appeared to  be a painting of a woman in a Victorian dress.

I began to worry about how I would come up with a believable Victorian dress, and I decided to look in the local community college library, which happens to have a good art book section. “John Singer Sargent” popped into my head and I thought to myself that he had created portraits of women in dresses around that time period…so I pulled a book of his paintings off of the shelf and checked it out. I was looking at it for the third time about a week later, beginning to feel panicky about how to design a light blue Victorian gown, when all of a sudden, I turned the page in the book past a dress that almost looked right, and spotted a painting that pictured the identical image from the black and white photocopy. Except, most puzzlingly, it was cropped slightly different…the painting in the book had more space above the figure’s head….I wondered wether the b/w photocopy was a copy of a copy….but anyway, I had found the dress! I looked it up on-line and printed out a beautiful 8″x 10″ photo of the painting. Not only did this give me brush stroke information about how to create the dress, but it presented a pretty believable warm-hued background.

Blocking in background and foreground areas

The painting looked like the client from the moment I started sketching her in.

Committing to the background
The completed portrait

At the client’s request, we replaced a “clutch” for what seemed to be a bud vase in the figure’s front hand. It was really fun paying such detailed homage to the Sargent painting…I found myself quite interested in the white shape slightly behind the figure…is it a pillow case cast to the floor? Why did Sargent think that this disordered element was a good idea? Or perhaps more significantly, why did he want such a noticeable white shape in that spot?Maybe to simply direct the viewer’s eye along the top diagonal so as to take the viewer’s gaze under the sofa and behind the figure? Maybe this is what gives the painting it’s lively sense of depth?

This woman’s family were all involved in obtaining updates on the portrait and then making sure it was beautifully framed for her for mother’s day. I wasn’t sure whether to tell her husband when I met him to hand off the portrait, how small my expectations for my own mother’s day were. Not much fanfare at my house. “If I was lucky,” I finally told him, “my youngest son would bring me coffee in bed. That was about it.” We both chuckled.

As it turned out, I was wrong. My youngest son coerced his older brother to help bake me a cake. So I had a mother’s day cake! (but no coffee in bed)

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