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Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), by John Singer Sargent, 1893, oil on canvas. Image via Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Face of the Madonna

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I stumbled across a picture of Elizabeth some years ago in a book. Her story has always stayed with me and she is often on my mind as a muse. I wanted to share her with you.

According to Sargent, twenty-six-year old Elizabeth Chanler had "the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child." This portrait shows a beautiful, well-bred woman who has learned to be strong. When Elizabeth was still a girl, her mother died, leaving her to help care for seven younger brothers and sisters. Sargent painted her while she was in London for a brother's wedding, and the artist composed the portrait as if to suggest a turmoil of emotions in his sitter. The top half of the portrait is ordered and still. Elizabeth's gaze is direct, her face centered between two paintings: a Madonna and Child and a figure of an old woman copied from Frans Hals. But the lower half is full of tension. Her arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows seem to wrestle with one another; only her clasped fingers and elbows keep everything under control. Perhaps the artist wished to show Elizabeth as a woman who, despite early hardships, was neither maiden nor matron. Sargent was often dismissed by his contemporaries as a "society portraitist," but his paintings always convey the human story behind the image. - Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, (2006). Excerpt via Smithsonian American Art Museum.

x Kalaurie


Kalaurie Muse

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