This portrait depicts John Singer Sargent’s lifelong friend Sarah Sears, a photographer and patron of the arts in Boston. Her alert pose, intense gaze, and upper-body posture contrast with the seemingly relaxed position of her lower body, an instance of how Sargent seemed to capture, as one critic wrote, “the nervous tension of the age.”
Sears played an important role in a number of artists’ careers by buying their works and providing additional support. Together with her friend, and often rival, art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, Sears served as a preeminent Boston tastemaker at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, Sears was an accomplished painter and photographer who exhibited her work in important international exhibitions such as the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York.
In this painting, Sears’s satin dress exemplifies Sargent’s extraordinary skill at rendering white, subtly nuanced with painterly flourishes of lavender, blue, and pink. The stunning surface display of paint connotes elegance and dash, and illustrates what made Sargent the portraitist of choice for the aristocracy of England and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.