Lines and Colors art blog

Portraits of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon: Zorn vs. Sargent

Portraits of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon: Anders Zorn vs. John Singer Sargent
Though I’ve never had the chance to see the original in person (it’s not always on display), I’ve admired this portrait of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (née Virginia Purdy) by Anders Zorn in the high-resolution images on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

The Met’s description of the painting is brief, and mentions that both John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler admired the portrait at the Paris Salon, where it was displayed in 1897.

According to Greg Cook, writing for WBUR’s The Artery, there is a backstory. The sitter’s husband apparently challenged Zorn — a contemporary of Sargent who competed, to some extent, for the same well-to-do clientele — to paint a better portrait of his wife than the one done by Sargent the year before (images above, bottom).

Cook’s article indicates that, as described in Zorn’s memoirs, Sargent acknowledged that Zorn had outdone him.

Granted, the portrait by Sargent, though very nice, is not one of his more outstanding works (for other examples see my posts here and here); however, by any measure, the portrait by Zorn is striking.

(Unfortunately, though the Zorn painting is viewable in high-resolution on the Met’s website, I don’t know of a source for a large image of the Sargent painting, the original of which is in the collection of the Biltmore Estate.)

I’m not suggesting Zorn is a better painter than Sargent (as much as I like both, I hold Sargent in higher regard) — just pointing out an interesting case in which two “masters of the loaded brush” painted the same sitter.


6 responses to “Portraits of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon: Zorn vs. Sargent”

  1. Melissa Avatar

    It’s certainly a more complimentary view, that’s for sure! And I love the attitude and the dog. Thanks for this comparison!

  2. It remains to be seen how well Sargent will fare in years ahead when compared with immensely talented painters like Zorn and Sorolla. (Art history is, after all, subject to reevaluations and revisions like any other form of history.) If Sargent suffers by comparison now it may be because, by his own admission, he lingered too long as a portrait artist wearing the golden handcuffs imposed by those who commissioned him.(My words, not his.) When he moved away from portraiture his aesthetic powers dramatically revived, as one can clearly see in his later watercolors. Sorolla, whose output may have been more prodigious and was arguably more varied, does not seem to have fallen prey to a similar malaise as a portraitist.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Daniel. Thanks.

      I like all three, and feel they have different strengths. Even when Sargent got bored with his sitters (and who could blame him), he would often find his fascination in the paint itself, and in the character of the clothing and fabrics and textures of the interior setting in which he posed them — an approach I think of as “interior landscapes”.

      I think of Sargent as the most accomplished for sheer bravura brushwork and representation of the face and figure; Zorn for his figure to setting relationships, particularly his striking interior lighting and his nudes wading in shallow water; and Sorolla for sunlight, both on figures and in landscapes in general. Portraiture did not seem to be the major part of his output, though that may just be the impression given by the pieces you see reproduced. I can’t blame publishers for focusing on his outdoor scenes. Sorolla was like a one-man alternative to Impressionism — Sorollaism.

      I would also add the too often overlooked American painter Cecilia Beaux to our select list of the finest portrait painters with buttery, fluid brush work and beautiful Gilded Age color. She was likely the least disaffected with her role as a society portrait painter, perhaps out of gratitude that she was allowed to even pursue that role as a woman in her time.

  3. Zorn’s viewpoint was more interesting, I think. It’s fun to imagine him standing on a stool while painting this one.

    1. Good question, Jeremy. Thanks. I’ve wondered if he was standing on a platform of some kind, or perhaps even a stair landing.

  4. Based on things I have read on Sargent over the years, such as his boredom and restrictions with high society portraiture, I wonder, or would like to think, he is rebelling slightly here, maybe too with the cooperation of the sitter (stander I guess).

    I love all the above mentioned painters for their own, as mentioned in post and comments, but part Sargent’s bravura was his personality not just his brushwork.
    Zorn’s is beautiful, yes, but is ‘safe’ as most society portraits were, including Sargent’s.
    In Sargent’s, the forward tilt of the standing pose, the smirkly smile or expression, the harder edges and bolder colors and tones, the livelier background all seem to be a mild snub to society portraits of the time, remember Sargent’s Madame X ?

    Is he also showing Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon’s true character, one she herself might have found too restrained publicly, again, with her cooperation?

    If so, that might have infuriated the husband who would then go to the Sargent’s rival to get a ‘proper’ portrait of his high society (restrained) wife.
    Hey, maybe I am reading too much into it here but that would make a better back story if true.