Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sarah Choate Sears and John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Sarah Choate Sears by John Singer SargentPortrait of Sarah Choate Sears by John Singer Sargent, 1889.

I continue to explore women artists; today's post is about Sarah Choate Sears, a wealthy Boston woman, with money on both sides of the family. (On her engagement to Joshua Montgomery Sears at the age of 19 (1877), she received a diamond necklace from him as an engagement gift which had a purported value at the time of $50,000!)

Sarah was a collector and patron of the arts, but also a talented watercolorist and photographer. She had studied with Dennis Miller Bunker at the Cowles Art School, taken private lessons with various Boston artists, and attended the Boston MFA School for several years. She had won prizes for her watercolor portraits at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Photograph of Helen Sears by Sarah Choate SearsPortrait of Helen Sears by Sarah Choate Sears, 1895.

She had taken up photography in the 1890s, and used her camera for the same subjects as her watercolor painting--portraits and still lifes. She had produced photo portraits of many Bostonians, including a series of photographs of her daughter, Helen, who had been born in 1889.

Sarah was one of the founders of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston in 1897, and had shown her photographic work in exhibitions there, as well as at the Boston Camera Club. In the early years of the 20th century, her photographs were exhibited in London and Paris, and in 1904 she was invited to be a fellow in Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession group in New York. (Stieglitz himself owned her photo portrait of Julia Ward Howe.) The stage was set for her to establish herself as one of the most outstanding American photographers of the era, but her husband died after a debilitating illness in June of 1905. Having to take over responsibilities for his estate, and with a daughter still at home, she gave up artistic photography (though she continued to produce portraits of family and friends).

Portrait of Helen Sears by Mary CassattPortrait of Helen Sears by Mary Cassatt, 1907.

She and Helen moved to Paris later in 1905. Sarah had been a long-time friend of Mary Cassatt, who gave Sarah a set of pastels (now owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and urged her to take up that genre. Sarah did so, and began to create bold, modernist pastels and watercolors of flowers, which she would exhibit well into the 1920s.

Sarah Choate Sears and John Singer Sargent

Photograph of John Singer Sargent by Sarah Choate SearsSarah Sears had most likely met the painter in Boston in the late 1880s. In 1889, he painted her portrait (shown at the beginning of this post), and in 1890 she returned the favor with the photographic portrait of him shown above.

Portrait of Helen Sears by John Singer SargentIn 1895 Sargent painted Sarah's daughter, Helen, in a very similar pose to the one Helen had struck in her mother's photographic portrait the same year, shown above. When Sarah sent Sargent a copy of the photo, he replied:

Many thanks for sending me the photographs. The new one of Helen has a wonderfully fine expression and makes me feel like returning to Boston and puffing my umbrella through my portrait. But how can an unfortunate painter hope to rival a photograph by a mother? Absolute truth combined with absolute feeling. [1]

Charcoal of Helen Sears by John Singer SargentIn 1912, Sargent produced a charcoal sketch of the 23-year-old Helen.


[1] Letter from John Singer Sargent dated August 7, 1895 and quoted in Erica E. Hirshler's A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940, Boston: MFA Publications, 2001.

Much of the information about Sarah Sears that appears in this post was also provided in the Hirshler book referenced above. I saw the exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2001 which was the book's companion and inspiration and bought the book there--little knowing I would return to this period with such interest 8 years later!!

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