American Art · European Art

The War of Art: A John Singer Sargent Fun Fact

Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, 1881. Des Moines, Iowa, Des Moines Art Center. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

I really enjoy this John Singer Sargent portrait of a young French brother and sister. I find myself drawn in by the girl’s expression. She looks so tough and determined. I don’t think I would want to mess with her. She’s a strong contrast to her mild older brother, who looks like he’s used to his sister running the show. What was she thinking?

Probably about how much she hated the artist. According to her own writings in later life, Marie-Louise Pailleron, then age nine, despised Sargent. This was probably in large part because he made her complete eighty-three sittings for the portrait! (I would have lost my patience, too.) She apparently decided to rebel by making life as difficult for Sargent as she possibly could. She described her sittings as “a veritable state of war”. I wonder if she ever realized that her poor behavior was probably prolonging the process.

We know this because Marie-Louise Pailleron wrote a book when she was in her seventies. Title Le Paradis Perdu: Souvenirs d’Enfance, it’s about her childhood, including her interactions with Sargent.

I definitely don’t condone abusing the artist while having your portrait done. But in this case, it certainly made for a compelling painting. Now that I know the story behind it, I like it even more.

Source: Hirshler, Erica E. Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting. Boston: MFA Publications, 2009.

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