Sargent’s portrait of the American actor Edwin Booth is based upon a play of contradictions and juxtapositions. Booth, age fifty-six, appears as if on stage, though not in character. Dressed in street clothes, he is an imposing figure, but his demeanor here is decidedly casual. His stance is heroic, but the spare setting lacks the elaborate décor typical of life-size portraits. Heat from the fireplace opposes the coolness of the marble surround. The fire’s embers, represented by dazzling strokes of salmon, suggest the inevitable end of Booth’s celebrated career. This painterly fluidity helped catapult Sargent to the greatest critical acclaim of his life.


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