The most cosmopolitan of American painters, John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriates who traveled frequently from one European city to another. Sargent sought art instruction in Paris in 1874 under Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, and soon began to produce paintings that dazzle the viewer with virtuoso brush handling. The society portraits with which Sargent established and sustained his reputation seem to encapsulate the opulence and aspirations of the Gilded Age. Yet his genre paintings, landscapes, and watercolors, though less well known, often reveal a more personal and adventurous nature.
Sargent made this casual portrait in 1882, during the latter of his two stays in Venice. The model was a working-class woman who also posed for several genre paintings in which dark, exotic figures meet in the shadowy recesses of Venetian alleyways and palazzos. The unusually large canvas, nearly eight feet tall, was probably intended for exhibition at the annual Paris Salon, though ultimately Sargent did not submit it.
An affectionate portrait of a favorite model, this work exhibits an earthy vitality and immediacy rarely equaled in the artist’s commissioned portraits, although they are no less brilliant. The subject’s direct gaze, as she raises her skirt to reveal an ankle, is an explicit flirtation with the viewer, and the open doorway into a forbiddingly dark space suggests the mysterious world she inhabits. The vivacious brushwork and the combinations of buttery yellow, white, dark magenta, aqua, gray, and black further enhance the painting’s evocation of a sensual existence.