Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, 1888
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
John Singer Sargent's portrait of thirteen-year-old Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1874–1950), a great-granddaughter of the shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877), exemplifies Sargent's consummate skills as a portraitist. After completing a full-length portrait of Alice's mother, Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard (1845–1924), Sargent requested permission to paint the young girl. The portrait appears unstudied and informal, while the subtlety of the composition perfectly captures the subject's contemplative nature and introspective character. Sumptuous notes of color combine with Sargent's sensitive treatment of flesh to create a strikingly intimate view of a young girl that extols her vivid intelligence and fluid beauty.
Born to expatriate American parents in Florence, Italy, the cosmopolitan John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) remained abroad—primarily in London—most of his life. His reputation as an emerging artist of talent escalated meteorically with the exhibition in 1884 of his mesmerizing portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (1859–1915), popularly known as Madame X (Metropolitan Museum of Art). During his trip to America in 1887 to paint portraits on commission, he received his first solo exhibition in Boston at the St. Botolph Club; his reception there was both critically and popularly acclaimed. Throughout his life Sargent traveled extensively, shifting among exotic European locales where he would sketch and paint. By 1907, tired of the incessant commissions that attended his vast popularity as a portraitist, he vowed to abandon them in favor of other artistic interests, including landscape painting and watercolor. During his later years, Sargent concentrated on the murals he designed for the Boston Public Library. Following his death in London, three memorial exhibitions were immediately organized—at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Royal Academy in London.