The paintings of John Singer Sargent have gone in and out of fashion over the years. I, for one, am an unrepentant Sargentaholic! One of my favorite things to do is to go to the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit my two favorite paintings of his, Madame X, and this portrait of Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes, also known as Edith Minturn Stokes. What do I love about this painting? Where do I start! I love the vitality of the subject, she just glows with health and energy. And then the slight smile on her face. She looks fresh and alive and most of all modern. Even her outfit reflects her independence, it's as if she's game for anything. Love the hands on the hips!
Edie's brother Robert once described her as 'fierce.' As a toddler, one of the games that she liked to play was to try and escape the parasol her mother held over her on the beach, running shrieking to the waves. 30 years old when this portrait was painted, she'd already had a bit of notoriety when the sculptor Daniel Chester French sculpted her for Chicago's Columbian Exposition as the face of the Republic.
The portrait was a wedding present from a family friend, James Scrimser. The couple had been on an extended honeymoon in Paris when they decided to visit London to have the portrait done. It was 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. According to Jean Zimmerman's new mini-biography about Edith and her husband Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes entitled Love Fiercely, A Gilded Age Romance (Hougton Mifflin 2012), Edith initially wore a blue evening gown for her portrait. But after five weeks of sittings, Sargent wasn't satisfied with the painting so he scrapped it. It wasn't until Edith and her husband showed up at Sargent's studio in Chelsea in London after walking across the city that he knew how he wanted to paint her, in her every day clothes. When the painting was first exhibited, Edith's outfit caused comment. Her simple shirtwaist and skirt, mannish jacket and tie, plus the straw boater sitting on her hip reflected a more modern woman, one who rode a bicycle, possibly worked for a living as a teacher or a journalist.
One of the many things that I love about the painting is the fact that her husband stands behind her, almost as an afterthought (Sargent had initially thought of painting a Great Dane standing beside her). He stands with his arms folded, in the shadows. It's clear from the painting that Edith is the more extroverted partner in the marriage, and that her husband is quite happy and even a little amused to even be in the painting. Perhaps he was just amazed that he'd finally gotten Edith to marry him!
Both Edie and her husband Newton were contemporaries of Edith Wharton. In fact they could have stepped out of the pages of one of her novels. Theirs was a world filled with balls, mansions, summer 'cottages' and European vacatons. Both came from old money, at one time Newton's grandfather Anson owned most of the Murray Hill neighborhood in New York. The house he grew up in now houses the Morgan Library. Edith's paternal grandfather built the world's fastest clipper ship. Her maternal ancestors were equally illustrious. Her Josephine Shaw Lowell was involved with the settlement movement in New York, and her uncle was Robert Gould Shaw who led the 54th Massachusetts regiment depicted in the film Glory. The couple, both born in 1867, grew up together on Staten Island where the Minturns and the Stokes had homes before the hoi polloi moved in and made it unfashionable. Edith's father Robert suffered a reversal of fortune briefly, but luckily for Edith she was spared Lily Bart's fate. Although her debut was much simpler than the usual debutantes, in a few years, the Minturn fortunes had been restored.
Both Edith and Newton were 28 when they got married in 1895. After spending years abroad studying architecture in Paris, over New Years 1894/95, Newton finally turned his attention to his childhood friend. But he had no game! On a sleigh ride in the country, he tried to propose but Edith cut himn off at the pass. With his tail between his legs, Newton went back to Paris to lick his wounds. It was only when her sister sent him a letter hinting that he should try again, conveniently letting him know exactly where they were going to be, that Newton came back to the States. On the way, he stopped off in London for a new wardrobe! At the Minturn summer home in Canada, he pressed his suit again and this time he was accepted. Still, he wasn't sure if the marriage was actually going to take place until he saw his bride walk down the aisle. Unusually for the time, the marriage took place 2 months after the engagement. Clearly Newton wanted to get his bride down the aisle as soon as possible!
But once Edith made up her mind to marry him, she never looked back. The couple were both interested more in improving the lives of others than spending their time attending balls. Newton plied his trade as an architect (among his buildings are St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University, and the University Settlement House), as well as attempting to create decent housing for the poor. However, he's most known for a 6 volume tome called the Iconography of Manhattan Island. Edith became involved with the New York Kindergarten Association, and also ran a sewing school for immigrant women. Unable to have children, the couple adopted a little girl from England. Oh, and did I mention that they bought a house in England and had it taken down and then shipped across the Atlantic?
Edith seems to have suffered from chronic hypertension which often left her an invalid which greatly curtailed her work. In her sixties, she suffered a series of strokes, which left her almost completely paralyzed. Her husband would spend hours reading to her from her favorite books, or playing her favorite music. She finally passed away at the age of 70 in 1937. Her husband lived on for another 7 years until he passed away in 1944. Their ashes are buried together at St. Paul's Chapel. Interesting factoid, Edith's great niece was Edie Sedgwick, the 1960's and Warhol icon, who was named after her. Her other niece (daughter of her sister Gertrude who married Amos Pinchot) was Rosamond Pinchot Gaston.
Other painters such as Cecilia Beaux (see below) painted Edith but they are more conventional portraits.
and then there is this one painted by Fernand Paillet (owned by the New York Historical Society), painted in 1892 when Edith was 25.
While both are beautiful, I don't think they come close to the Sargent portrait. That woman I'd like to get to know, to hang out with. The woman in the other portraits is someone that you might see at a tea party and have a pleasant conversation with. They don't have the vitality that Sargent's portrait does.