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Portraits by an Artist in His Prime

John Singer Sargent's paintings of the rich get a grand American homecoming at the Huntington.

July 12, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

If there's a single artist whose work connects the Huntington's collections of British and American art, it must be John Singer Sargent. An American, born to expatriates in Florence in 1856, he studied in Florence and Paris, and achieved enormous success in London as a portrait painter in the aristocratic style known as the Grand Manner. By 1900, Sargent was the leading society portraitist on both sides of the Atlantic, but he is so strongly identified with British portraiture, he is often thought to be British.

That means that he fits right in at the Huntington. The multifaceted Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino--founded by American railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington--has many claims to fame, but it is best known in art circles for its British art collection and is probably the world's finest repository of full-length British portraits, most notably "Blue Boy" by Thomas Gainsborough and "Pinkie" by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

American art is a relative newcomer at the Huntington, which opened a gallery in 1984 to house an American collection donated by the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. And, until very recently, the collection contained only one Sargent portrait, an informal, half-length painting of the artist's friend, Charles Stuart Forbes. It was presented to the Huntington by the foundation in honor of the gallery's inauguration.

But now the Scott gallery has a minibonanza of Sargents. His painting of Forbes has been joined by "Portrait of Mrs. William Playfair," a three-quarter-length likeness of a middle-aged woman, recently purchased with funds from the Scott foundation, and three long-term loans from private collections. Most spectacular--and installed in a central place of honor--is "Portrait of Pauline Astor," a more-than 8-foot-tall, full-length portrayal of a young woman in a landscape. Flanking her, well above eye level, are two relatively small roundels (round paintings) depicting mythological subjects, "Sphinx and Chimaera" and "Judgment of Paris," created as studies for murals at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Amy Meyers, the Huntington's curator of American art couldn't be happier. "The luxury of this is that we are able to show Sargent working at his highest caliber in very different periods of his career," she said. " 'Mrs. Playfair' was painted when he was in his early 30s, relatively fresh from Paris and still painting very much in a Parisian mode, looking toward continental sources. He was deeply influenced by the Impressionists but also looking back to Old Master painting, particularly that of Velasquez.

"When you come to the Grand Manner portraits he was doing 10 years later, such as 'Pauline Astor,' what you are seeing is a wonderful interweaving--in a very self-conscious way--of the impact of Impressionism on Sargent as he reworked the Grand Manner tradition. So you have this marvelous marriage of the loose, very fluid translucent brush strokes of Gainsborough reinterpreted by Sargent in terms of Impressionism," she said.

"The roundels represent his mural paintings, which of course come much later and are done in America, and are really the working out of great public projects in a Beaux-Arts fashion. They are civic works on a very different scale."

How all these Sargents happened to congregate in San Marino is a curious, convoluted story. Fulfilling a longstanding wish to acquire another Sargent, the Huntington used Scott foundation funds to purchase "Mrs. Playfair" in March for an undisclosed sum from New York collectors Harry and Cookie Spiro, Meyers said. But while that deal was in the works and Meyers was scouring the market for suitable contenders, several major works by Sargent came up for sale at Sotheby's New York. The cover piece on the auction catalog was "Portrait of Pauline Astor."

"The image was unforgettable because it was so striking," Meyers said. But the painting, consigned by a descendant of the subject, was sold to Houston collector William Carloss Morris for $1.9 million. It was the sixth highest price in the Dec. 3, 1997 auction, in which another Sargent painting, "In the Garden, Corfu," brought the top price of $8.3 million.

Meyers had never met Morris and had no reason to think she would ever be associated with "Pauline Astor." But shortly after the Huntington had acquired "Mrs. Playfair," Morris called the museum and was connected to her.

"As a private collector, he was very interested in researching his own paintings," she said. "He had made the equation between Gainsborough and this particular portrait. Although he had never visited the Huntington, he found that we have the greatest collection of English Grand Manner portraits in this country and called to find out more about the collection. He was particularly interested in connections between the painting and 'Blue Boy' for a variety of reasons."

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