Miss Elsie Palmer

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John Singer Sargent, Miss Elsie Palmer, 1889-1890
By KATHERINE GRABOWSKY

Her graceful, rose-colored dress drapes over her as she sits poised and pretty. Yet the solemn expression on her face seems to draw all the attention of the viewer’s gaze. Maybe this was John Singer Sargent’s intention when he painted 17 year-old Elsie Palmer in 1889-1890. His work encapsulates every message conveyed through Deborah Davis’s Strapless. Just like John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, Miss Elsie Palmer makes a statement with its enormous size. Miss Elsie Palmer was born in 1873 to a wealthy family from Colorado. Her family then moved to England to be with her father's family. Just by Elsie’s outfit, it is apparent that she was born as a well-off child. Every aspect of the painting reminds the viewer that though she was born as privileged, the pains of her sadness shine through the clothing. Barbara Groseclose’s “Portraiture” addresses the idea of wealthy white women as synonymous with class definition. Elsie Palmer embodies the spirit of social division.

Elsie’s eyes seem tired and uninterested. Her mouth does not show even the smallest inkling of a smile, and her back stands up a little too straight. Sargent seems to capture the feeling of being trapped in this life of luxury. Elsie clearly has other activities she would rather be doing than to be subjected to a mere object enclosed in this canvas. Similar to Mrs. Virginie Gautreau in Madame X, Elsie’s life of leisure and luxury does not always come with happiness. Both women struggle with imprisonment to society, though Mrs. Gautreau seems to embrace the captivity of life as a socialite. Though we can only see a small sliver of the area, the tone of the painting seems to say that silence overtakes the large, empty room. Her eyes speak for themselves. The viewer can get lost in her vacant gaze that appears to hold no emotion, but actually tells a story. They tell the story of a young girl trapped between childhood and womanhood, bound inside the restraints of society. Elsie Palmer may sit and dress as the perfect portrait model, but the emotion in her face shows the viewer the hidden pain in this life of “ease.” 

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