We look into the face of William Butler Yeats—his sensuous mouth, the cleft in the lower one, the artful flop of hair over his high forehead, his hooded eyes, elaborate bow tie, velvet jacket. We see him as John Singer Sargent sees him, Yeats declaring himself with his expression, his being, a great poet. Henry James is painted with his thumb hitched into his vest pocket to show his assurance as a writer and as a man. The mysterious face of the actress, Eleanora Duse, her asymmetrical eyes and mouth, barely hints at the emotions that she delivered on stage. Who would know how stork-like Charles Dickens was if it weren’t for Sargent’s full-length portrait of him, so self-involved that his wife is lopped off at the edge of the canvas? It’s obvious how much Sargent enjoyed the intimacy that grew between himself and his subjects.
But portraits are never easy, not their execution nor dealing with the person you are painting. Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston paid Sargent $3,000 to do her portrait in 1888. She was thrilled with the project, making many suggestions herself. However, she made Sargent redo her face eight times before she approved. And when the painting was revealed to the public, they found it, well, too revealing. Mr. Gardner asked her to not show the painting publicly until after he died. It was tucked away in a private room in their house until both of them died.
Good thing Sargent also loved painting landscape.