John Singer Sargent paid careful attention to his sitters' hands, using pose and gesture to enhance and enliven his portraits. Throughout Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, you'll notice his tendency to bend, twist, or contort fingers and hands into unusual positions. In his portraits of actors, dancers, and musicians alike, Sargent's accentuation of hand gestures reveals details about his sitters' personalities or moods and, in some cases, the sitters' relationship with the artist.
From his earliest days in Paris, Sargent seems to have had a predilection for depicting hands in contorted and sometimes awkward positions. In the portrait of his teacher Carolus-Duran, for example, Sargent creates an informal yet candid pose for his sitter. As Carolus-Duran leans forward, his left arm rotates, and his hand is flipped over to expose his palm and the glint of his ring. This distinct pose creates a sense of Duran's active engagement with the viewer and allows the young and ambitious Sargent to demonstrate his knowledge of anatomy and his skill as a painter.
Sargent exploited the expressive possibilities of the hand to convey details about his sitters' temperament. In his portrait of Marie-Louise Pailleron in Pailleron Children, the girl's hands reflect the tense atmosphere of the seemingly endless sittings that Sargent required. The lengthy and numerous sessions—she claimed there were eighty-three—tested the eleven-year-old's endurance and patience. Sargent captured the young girl's intensity in her frontal pose and direct, penetrating gaze and extended this tension into her clenched right hand. Her left hand, fingers bent at the knuckles, pushes against the seat, creating an awkward angle for her hand and wrist and activating her arm. The pose is at once unnatural and engaged, perhaps reflecting her resolve to endure the endless sittings.
Marie Louise's older brother, Édouard, appears as a secondary figure, seated slightly behind his sister with his legs tucked behind the bench as he turns towards the viewer. Notice the position of Édouard's right arm and hand—the rotation of his body toward the viewer extends through his shoulder and down his arm. His wrist is bent to reveal the open palm of his hand. Try to recreate this gesture and imagine posing there for several hours. Again, this extraordinary and somewhat unnatural pose can be seen as an artistic flourish—evidence of Sargent's ambition to create a sense of energy, engagement, and tension in the portrait.
In his portrait Dr. Pozzi at Home, Sargent makes the brilliant surgeon's hands the focal point of the composition. Within the dramatic crimson painting, Sargent accentuates the pale flesh of Pozzi's face and hands by framing them with the crisp, white pleated collar and cuffs of his shirt. Pozzi's slender and elegant hands remind the viewer of his profession and his renowned surgical skills. Yet his long attenuated fingers pulling at the sash and collar of his dressing gown evoke his well-known reputation as a sensualist.
In Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, Sargent captures the nervous energy of the author, in what was apparently a characteristic pose—walking and talking. Sargent shows the great writer's hand tugging at his signature mustache as he strides across the room. The position of the long sinuous fingers brings attention to Stevenson's mouth and signifies that he's speaking. Sargent symbolically connects Stevenson's words (coming from his mouth) to the writer's hand.
Sargent chose to portray the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth not on stage or in character but standing in the lobby of the club he founded in New York City, The Players. His thumbs are hooked into the pockets of his trousers. When Booth described the finished portrait in a letter to his daughter, he wrote:
Now for the portrait. The pose was chosen as being so very characteristic when off the stage, and standing in conversation, and as being so unconventional. . . . I was surprised to find myself standing the very attitude when I asked Sargent if it was usual with me and I find my hands in the same position even on the stage—in Hamlet very frequently.
In Sargent's unfinished sketch A Javanese Dancing Girl, you can see that the artist experimented with the position of the dancer's right hand, studying two expressive hand gestures of the symbolic dance.
An Out‑of‑Doors Study, Sargent's portrait of his dear friend, the French painter Paul Helleu, and his wife, Alice, is a painting about the act of painting. Sargent carefully records the precise and delicate pose of Helleu's hand as he applies paint to his canvas—making it the focal point of the composition. We witness Helleu's intense concentration on the creation of his art as if it were a performance.
These portraits represent just a few examples of the many ways Sargent communicates his sitters' personalities and attitudes through their hand gestures. We hope you'll have a chance to visit the exhibition and take a close look at the expressive hands in Sargent's portraits for yourself.
Edwin Booth to his daughter Edwina Booth Grossman, April 27, 1890, quoted in Edwin Booth: Recollections by His Daughter Edwina Booth Grossman and Letters to Her and to His Friends, London, 1894: 110–111.