|John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Edward Darley Boit, 1887.|
The polka-dot-clad lady above is Mary Louisa Cushing Boit, Boston matron and mother of the four girls in the well-known Sargent painting, the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Mary Louisa's portrait is part of Exhibition Lab: Sargent and Fashion, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, on view from November 10, 2018 until June 23, 2019. As explained in a video dialog between curators Pamela Parmal and Erica Hirshler, this exhibit is really a preview of what will be a larger show, to open in 2022, of Sargent works, with a focus on his representation of apparel. Patron feedback is solicited via iPad as well as paper and pencil in this gallery. So, visit and weigh in!
It can be dangerous to consider painters as textile historians. In the portrait of Mrs. Boit, first image above, Mrs. Boit is dressed in an assortment of fabrics, including tulle, velvet and satin. Most eye-catching, however, is the black polka-dot fabric with the pink ground. According to the wall text, while polka-dots were fashionable at the time, the pattern was found more commonly in juvenile apparel, and it does seem at odds with the sober black of her overall costume. Was this outfit part of her usual wardrobe or something assembled at the behest of Sargent, responding to what author Henry James called the "eternally juvenile" facet of her personality?
Hung on the wall nearby were actual samples of taffeta, satin and velvet fabrics, all black, welcoming patrons to touch and examine. The fabric "petting zoo" is a great idea but the dark color made it a bit more difficult to see the weave structure.
|Two portraits, two dresses.|
The image above reveals additional examples of Sargent's approach to textiles in his society portraits. On the wall to the left is a reproduction of Portrait of Mrs. J. P. Morgan, Jr., nee Jane Norton Grew (1868-1925). The gown she wore for the portrait, designed by French couturier Jean-Phillipe Worth and owned by the MFA, is displayed in the foreground. Although it's difficult to tell in my image, Sargent only hints at the woven pattern of the dress. He also seems to reduce the reflective nature of the fabric; in the portrait the surface is depicted as almost matte, with few highlights to distract from her face, bosom and arm. This is a distinct departure from earlier attitudes towards shiny fabrics, which gave painters a chance to show off their skill in depicting reflectivity. Almost more important than the dress is the feathery (furry?) white stole, which practically buries her right hand, barely modelled, and holding a fan. Jane Morgan almost looks enveloped in a protective cloud.
To the right above is Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy), painted in 1887. The lush red silk velvet dress on display, copied from a Worth gown by the Boston company of Auringer and Lewis, may be the same dress. I gather the documentation is uncertain. Whether or not the dress retains it original neckline, in the painting Sargent lowered the neckline as much as he dared in this portrait of a wealthy physician's wife, who was pregnant at the time with her third child. The right strap (from the viewing perspective) of the dress has been minimized, exposing more skin and emphasizing the bow, and the left bow seems to have disappeared altogether, emphasizing the elegant curve of the arm.
Sargent clearly "tailors" his sitter's apparel to suit his technique and goals. I look forward to learning more in the finished exhibit in 2022.
An aside: a brief Google search for "Auringer and Lewis" yielded nothing; perhaps an enterprising fashionista will write a history of couture in Boston.