Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (Sarah Choate Sears), 1899
John Singer Sargent, American, born Italy, 1856–1925
Oil on canvas
58 1/8 × 38 1/8 in. (147.6 × 96.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by George R. Brown in honor of his wife, Alice Pratt Brown
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Observation and Slow Looking :
A Portrait Of and In Time
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Analyze a work of art
- Explore emotional responses to art
- Create original works of art
- Study the historical or cultural context of a work of art
Connecting to the Work of Art
John Singer Sargent’s ability to reveal the individuality and personalities of his sitters, illustrated in this commissioned portrait of Sarah Choate Sears, made him one of the leading portrait painters of his time.
Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears showcases Sargent’s superb handling of paint. Loose, bold brushstrokes accentuate the fabric folds of the skirt and reveal the crispness of fabric. Highlights in lavender and pink add to the shimmering richness of the material. Although originally thought to be posed in her wedding dress, Mrs. Sears is most likely wearing the latest in Victorian fashion. Sargent painted visual cues to indicate Mrs. Sears’s wealth and position. Her relaxed, casual pose indicates her high social status through her position as a lady of leisure. The artist also portrays Mrs. Sears as a study of whites. Though today considered a symbol of purity, at the time white was seen as a sign of wealth. Mrs. Sears holds a bouquet of pink peonies—flowers believed to be symbolic of prosperity and happy marriage.
The dark, almost indistinguishable background with the chiefly white foreground focuses the viewer’s attention on Mrs. Sears and the gracefulness of her persona. The figure intently gazes almost beyond the viewer in a tranquil pose, with her head lightly propped by two fingers. The tension created from the combination of her alert pose and twisted upper body with the relaxed position of her lower body provides an example of how Sargent captured, as one critic wrote, “the nervous tension of the age.”
Rendered in the Grand manner style of painting, a term used to describe paintings that incorporated visual metaphors that suggested noble qualities, Mrs. Sears is depicted life-sized and in surroundings that convey her aristocratic status. Taking into account that Mrs. Sears was a member of the Boston Brahmins, a very prominent class of cultural society in New England, the portrait reflects the affluence and refinement of the American Gilded Age. Although considered an American artist due to his nationality, Sargent spent most of his life in Europe. A truly international figure—living in Paris, London, and Italy—Sargent painted, socialized, and held close friendships with the elite of these societies. Such connections allowed him to provide firsthand accounts of the elegance, opulence, and constraints of Victorian society in his works.
- How would you describe the pose of the sitter? Would you describe her stare in the same manner? Why or why not?
- How does this relaxed pose of her body contrast with her piercing stare? How does this add to the tone of the painting?
- This painting is nearly life-sized. How would the work of art be different if it were smaller in scale?
- The sitter, Mrs. Sears, was an aristocrat. How does the artist convey her status in the portrait?
- Describe the fabric of the dress. While the dress is all white, the artist succeeds in portraying various textures. How is this achieved? Considering your own associations with the color white, what could the white dress symbolize?
- How would you describe the brushstrokes used in the work? How do the loose, bold brushstrokes add to the fabric?
- How does the artist depict the fabric used in the dress? How does this add to the opulent tone?
- How does the artist use the background to focus the viewer’s attention on the sitter? How would this work be different if more of the background was included in the composition?
- People have mistaken the sitter’s dress for her wedding dress. However, white was seen as a sign of wealth at the time in which this portrait was painted. How does knowing this change your interpretation of the work of art?
- The artist carefully imbued this portrait with fine visual cues to indicate Mrs. Sears’s wealth and position. Beyond her detailed dress, what other elements in the work tell viewers about the sitter’s status? Consider the size of the painting as well as the pose of the sitter.
- Compare the lavender and pink highlights in the dress to the shadowy background. How does this juxtaposition add tension to the work?
- The artist was known for his ability to capture the individuality and personalities of his sitters. Do you think he successfully depicts an individual in this work? What elements in this work support your answer?
- This work was painted around the painted around the end of the Industrial Revolution of the Industrial Revolution, a time which brought new technologies unfamiliar to society. How does this painting depict “the nervous tension of the age?”
- John Singer Sargent was one of the most accomplished portrait artists of his lifetime. Looking at this portrait of Mrs. Sears, why do you think important people wanted Sargent to paint their portraits?
Use Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears as the starting point for an exploration of how portraits can be a window into the culture of a particular time and setting.
First, look at the painting together, asking students to determine what time period they believe the portrait was created in and what the social status of the sitter might be. Students should make sure their answers are justified by specific details in the painting.
Then, ask students to research John Singer Sargent and the period he worked in. What is an artist’s style, and how would you define Sargent’s style? What were the defining characteristics of late 19th-early 20th century America and Europe? How might Sargent’s style reflect these tastes, interests, and concerns?
After exploring how Sargent expressed his own context through his portraits, ask students to step into his shoes. Instruct the class to create self-portraits that reflect the tastes, interests, and concerns of their own decade. Students should consider what they want their portraits to communicate to the viewer, and how their portraits reflect their own context.
For an extension to the activity, the class can turn their portraits into magazine covers, imagining the type of magazine that would feature their portraits and what the content within the magazine might be. The group of “covers” can be organized into a class archive, a primary source document of the decade. What might future researchers infer about these students’ lives and times if they were to view the archive?
Subject Matter Connection
Portraits are more than pictures of people. Portraits are expressions of the tastes, interests, and concerns of a time period. Studying the work of John Singer Sargent, students will research various decades of the 20th century and create original self portraits that reflect a historical time period.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider