This is The Misses Vickers (1884) by English painter John Singer Sargent.
I’ve said before that no artist mastered the female portrait quite like Sargent. Others have produced different, equally sublime works, but I’m not aware of anyone who’s surpassed him in oeuvre.
In our time, Tom Bagshaw gives Sargent a run for his money, but Bagshaw’s women, while potent and unafraid, have a certain persistent antagonism that, however much suited to the times, lacks much of Sargent’s subtlety and sophistication.
Sargent apparently did not like the Misses Vickers, describing them at one point as “three ugly women” who “lived in a dingy hole,” not that you could tell from his portrait, which is precisely a study in such contrasts. The young ladies are wealthy, being the daughters of Colonel Thomas Vickers, a prominent industrialist, and are depicted in full and opulent dress, but their poses are relaxed and casual.
Most commissioned portraits of the time, especially of wealthy patrons, depicted their subjects vertically, standing before a mantle or vista, such that the audience must look up to them. Men were martial and commanding; women objects of beauty, if they had any, otherwise of grace and refinement.
Sargent has us looking down on the Misses Vickers, but not in disdain. It’s as if we’ve been invited to their home and caught them at a moment of relaxation. It’s true that they are, in a sense, objects of beauty in that Sargent has made them pleasing to look at, but that is not all they are. They are people in full, as evidenced by their patent and distinct characters, and they have minds — they are reading a book, for example, and relaxing with each other as real sisters do, versus the archetype of respectable nobility captured in a typical portrait.
At the other end, of course, was the nude — an entire genre, like landscape painting, devoted to naked women, the portrait of a sexual object, commissioned in cash and hung as a possession.
Sargent wasn’t alone in depicting scenes of casual home life. Far from it. The painting below, for example, by James Tissot, Hide and Seek:
“…depicts a modern, opulently cluttered Victorian room, Tissot’s studio. After Kathleen Newton entered his home in about 1876, Tissot focused almost exclusively on intimate, anecdotal descriptions of the activities of the secluded suburban household, depicting an idyllic world tinged by a melancholy awareness of the illness that would lead to her death in 1882. The artist’s companion reads in a corner as her nieces and daughter amuse themselves” [National Gallery of Art].
The Misses Vickers, however, is notable for its composition and presentation of its adult subjects. For one, Tissot’s piece wasn’t a commissioned portrait but a work of personal inspiration, like a photograph. It is a scene of life, akin to a landscape, rather than a human study.
Compare Sargent’s painting to this one, John Everett Millais’s Hearts are Trumps, which also depicts three wealthy young women in full satin dress — here playing cards, seemingly to pass the time while they wait for husbands, or so the title implies to me. They are more or less indistinguishable from one another, and each looks either frustrated or bored: with the game, with the painting, with each other, even with the opulence that surrounds them.
Just by looking, we know so much more about the Vickers women, below, than these three. I don’t know their names or ages, but it seems to me the eldest Miss Vickers is in front. She is dressed the most conservatively and wears the least amount of makeup. Her eyes are down as if in serious study — or else propriety — as she patiently suffers the intrusions of the youngest, next to her, who has reached out to take control of the afternoon’s entertainment.
Continuing the theme of contrasts, the eldest sister’s dress is black, the youngest’s an airy and revealing white. One is serious, the other hardly paying attention, her eyes out the window. And yet, they are clearly fond of each other.
The middle girl is at the back, keeping to herself, as middle children do. (I am a middle child.) She is neither the most responsible nor the center of attention, yet she finds provocative ways of expressing herself. She is the troublemaker, dressed in passionate red, and she alone greets the viewer with her eyes, bringing us further into the scene, making us part of it in fact. And her hands make an interesting gesture.
The Misses Vickers is evocative for how it crams so much humanity into a single still image — and at a time women were typically seen as little more than large children, or sexual objects.
But then, as I said, Sargent had a genuine talent for female portraiture. His most daring work, Portrait of Madame X, which was completed earlier the same year, resulted in the scandal that saw him leave the high society of Paris to do commercial work at the Vickers’ country manor.
Madame X was not a commission but a personal work by the artist. The subject, an American expatriate who married a prominent French banker, is depicted so boldly and in such a blatantly sexual manner that the work was very poorly received at the Paris Salon of 1884.
This no doubt contributed to Sargent’s expressed disdain for the Misses Vickers, who were for him a sign of how far he had fallen from the height of the art world. Of course he wouldn’t know it at the time, but as much as Madame X damaged his career in the short term, it later helped established him as a notable talent in England and then America.
Portrait of Madame X is certainly the more famous work, and it is definitely the more provocative, but I prefer the humble simplicity of The Misses Vickers, which is Sargent at his most relaxed. There is an air of in-your-faceness in Madame X that — to me, at least — makes it seem like the artist was trying too hard: to be noticed, to push bounds, and that creates distance between work and viewer. Madame X’s ironic self-display seems almost to shame us for admiring her.
Forced into country exile, painting for commerce rather than art, but also freed from the latter’s demands, Sargent produced a much more human study — three women who are not objects, not icons, not ironic, not on display, just people: sisters enjoying their afternoon together.