Two Girls with Parasols

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John Singer Sargent, Two Girls with Parasols, 1888
By ISABEL THOMAS

In Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, Deborah Davis describes Sargent’s tendency to view the women in his paintings—like Madame Gautreau of Madame X—not as people, but as subjects to be painted. The artist depicts Gautreau as a porcelain doll on display in the famous painting, but she at least has a face, unlike the women in Two Girls with Parasols. Sargent strips them of their names, faces, and identities and leaves them as scenery—details of the landscape. Even though they have to endure the constraint and objectification of womanhood in this society, Sargent gives them the title of girls, not women.

Like Madame X, Two Girls with Parasols possesses a gilded beauty. Beneath the initial reaction to Sargent’s undeniable talent is a sadness in the artist and the subjects of his works. The shallow lifestyle led by the women in Two Girls with Parasols—which brought misery to countless others—was the prototype for the characters of Clarissa Dalloway and Lily Bart in Mrs. Dalloway and House of Mirth, respectively. After reading Mrs. Dalloway and House of Mirth and examining the leisure class around Sargent’s time, I could not help but make a connection to this painting. The clothing of these “lucky” members of the upper class was designed to hold them back. Corsets restricted the body and reduced practical abilities by preventing physical activity. Parasols literally shielded these women from the world around them and existed as an indication that they never went outside—that they were trapped indoors by the demands of high society functions.

The subjects of Two Girls with Parasols are surrounded by nature but live in a completely unnatural social system. This painting differs from Sargent’s characteristic style—like that of Madame X—with colors reminiscent of the Impressionists and brushstrokes as abstract as constructed gender roles. The painting’s scenery flows around the path as these “girls” look to what lies in their future. The faceless women follow this course along with Clarissa Dalloway, Lily Bart, and countless others.

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