The Amon Carter Museum of American Art announces today the acquisition of a major, full-length painting by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). The work, titled Edwin Booth from 1890, is a portrait of the great 19th-century Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth (1833–1893). It was commissioned by members of The Players in New York City, a private club for actors founded by Booth and his friends in 1888, and remained there until 2002, when debt forced the club to sell it to a private collector. Now owned by the Amon Carter, Edwin Booth is on view in the museum’s main gallery.
“Sargent is one of the most important American artists and we are thrilled to add another one of his masterpieces to our collection,” says Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter. “We were particularly intrigued by this painting as it is among his most brilliantly conceived full-length male portraits.
“At first glance, Sargent’s Booth appears so alive that we can easily envision him delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet, one of his signature roles,” Walker continues. “Upon further study, we discover that the painting is a carefully nuanced work of art, one of quiet emotion.”
Sargent created a masterful, immortal image of the revered actor—the 19th century’s greatest American tragedian and older brother of John Wilkes Booth—while also giving us a glimpse of Booth’s personality, according to Margi Conrads, deputy director of art and research.
“In this painting, Sargent channels his knowledge of European old master artists, especially Diego Velázquez, but the conception is entirely his own,” says Conrads. “Sargent’s Booth is both heroic and informal, alternating between public persona and private individual. The artist executed just what his patrons requested, a picture for posterity to be admired by present and future generations.”
The artist presents Booth in front of the grand fireplace in the club’s hallway, a place where Booth frequently stood giving toasts. (Booth, however, posed for the portrait in the artist’s studio a few blocks away.) Sargent painted the 5′7″ actor life size, although he thinned the figure’s hips and legs to adjust for the painting’s original viewing height above the mantle in the club’s reading room. Booth appears simultaneously imposing and informal—larger than life, but equally gracious and meditative. Dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, not a stage costume, his attitude is relaxed, but his stance expresses latent energy and nervous tension.
In Edwin Booth, we find the keys to Sargent’s great success, according to painting and sculpture curator Rebecca Lawton.
“Sargent’s brilliant finessing of color and brushstroke pervades the painting,” Lawton says. “He echoes the duality of Booth’s character in the juxtaposition of the hot brick fireplace and the cool marble surrounding it. The dazzling strokes of salmon in the fire’s embers and the daring streak of blue on Booth’s shirt contrast beautifully against the careful modeling of his face and hands.”
Edwin Booth joins another masterful Sargent in the museum’s collection, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1888), which was acquired in 1999.
“Given the elegance and panache of his female subjects, Sargent’s talent for male portraiture is frequently underestimated,” says Conrads. “It’s our hope that by having this painting available to a broader audience, we can help extend the appreciation of Sargent’s great talent.”
As the first life-size portrait to enter the collection, the painting offers a broader context for the social and cultural fabric of the Gilded Age.
“Booth acted on stages throughout the United States, bringing Shakespeare to countless people,” says Walker. “Many of the works in our painting collection focus on how the country was shaped from a landscape perspective. This painting complements that story nicely, featuring a person who greatly influenced the nation’s cultural heritage.”
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is always free. More information at www.cartermuseum.org.
About John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Born to expatriate American parents in Florence, Italy, John Singer Sargent remained abroad—primarily in London—most of his life. His reputation as an emerging artist of talent escalated meteorically with the 1884 exhibition of his mesmerizing and notoriously seductive portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, popularly known as Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art). During his trip to America in 1887 to paint portraits on commission, he received his first solo exhibition in Boston at the St. Botolph Club; his reception there was both critically and popularly acclaimed. Throughout his life Sargent traveled extensively, shifting among exotic European locales where he would sketch and paint. By 1907, tired of the incessant commissions that attended his vast popularity as a portraitist, he vowed to abandon them in favor of other artistic interests, including landscape painting and watercolor. During his later years, Sargent concentrated on the murals he designed for the Boston Public Library. Following his death in London, three memorial exhibitions were immediately organized—at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Royal Academy in London.