Mrs. Henry Marquand

7:00 AM

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Henry Marquand, 1887
BY ROSIE PASQUALINI

If she weren't extremely dead, I would be friends with Mrs. Henry Marquand. She looks kind without seeming naive, dignified but unpretentious, and elderly yet healthy. Also, she and I have matching hair. In this portrait Mr. Sargent presents, without excess coyness, several pairs of characteristics that we often assume to be mutually exclusive, especially within the context of high society. For all her regal flair, Mrs. Marquand exudes an undeniable warmth. The goal of portraiture, perhaps, is to bring out certain half-hidden attributes from a subject without negating what is apparent at first glance, and Sargent accomplishes this perfectly.

Mrs. Marquand is the center of gravity and light. She is a beacon of clarity and order compared to the glowy haze above her and the shadows hugging her chair. The first time I saw this piece I thought there was a bird on her chest, with its wings gliding up her shoulders. The lace carries this same delicate allure. She holds a fan in her right hand. I find this inane detail a bit disturbing, because the fan matches the walls far too well, which forces us to acknowledge that portraiture is a contrived theatre of light, similar in many way to today's Photoshop. Yet the facade has been put to good use here. Equally off-putting is the prominence of Mrs. Marquand's wedding ring in conjunction with the painting's title-- essentially her husband's name. Loss of self, it seems, was a prerogative of marriage. Henry Gurdon Marquand was a prominent businessman whom Sargent wanted to impress. Mr. Marquand helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the intent of "humanizing" the "practical" lower classes, and had an impressive private collection-- he donated fifty Old Master paintings to the MoMA and had several left over. Daaaaamn, Daniel! I have found little about Mrs. Marquand herself in Deborah Davis's Strapless, but we do learn, as the painting suggests, that Sargent liked her personally. Her first name was Elizabeth.

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