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John Singer Sargent's Mugs and Madame X

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) made hundreds of rapidly drawn charcoal sketches of society personalities, drawings he referred to as "mugs." He made these in response to a high demand for his work. Not being able to satisfy all with oil paintings, he satiated his sitters with quick charcoal drawings.

These portraits are mostly of wealthy patrons, although sometimes he would make exceptions. But that is already a much wider pool to draw from than his biggest influence and predecessor Velázquez, who only painted royal subjects.

These "mugs," like a facebook profile picture, should be seen in a social context just as much as an art history context. Sargent not only captured a likeness of the sitter, but created a portrait of a social milieu, the decadent Edwardian high society.

I wish I could know more about some of the individuals in these drawings, and what was going on around them at the moment these drawings were made. For example, the striking portrait Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for the ballet 'Le Pavillon D'Armide' at the Ballet Russes. Nijinsky has an incredibly heartbreaking life story, despite his major talent. Read about him at this link.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
Portrait of Mrs. George Swinton
Portrait of Viola Tree
Portrait of Eleonora Randolph Sears 
Here is a link to some wonderful biographical information and details of Eleonora's sitting with Sargent. In this case, Sargent requested her to to sit for a drawing because of her extraordinary personality.

Portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky

One portrait we do have a sensational back story on is the infamous Madame X. Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, did not commission this portrait. She was pursued by Sargent who wanted to create a masterpiece for the 1884 Paris Salon.
"The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance." (Wikipedia)
Once unveiled, the portrait was met with critical hatred. Gautreau, without lending her name to the piece, was unmistakable with her strong features. The criticism was a combination of revulsion at the painting and revulsion at the perceived vulgarity of the subject. A woman who would sensationalize herself for social promotion, or so it seemed. Gautreau was disappointed and humiliated that the masterpiece she believed herself to be contributing to was such a critical disaster, and that not only the painting but her character were being criticized. Sargent tried to make amends by repainting the shoulder strap of her dress in an upright position, it was originally off the shoulder. This painting can currently be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is now considered widely to be his greatest achievement!

Madame X (Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau), 1884

And I just had to share this image of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky!

Vaslav Nijinsky in costume


  1. It's not a drag queen, it's the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for the ballet 'Le Pavillon D'Armide'.

    1. Thank you so much for this information! I have been wondering who that was since I posted the image because he is so charismatic! I started to read about Vaslav Nijinsky's life and it is so tragic. This portrait must have been drawn at a high point in his career. Thank you again.

  2. You're more than welcome! I notice there is a new Nijinsky biography out, by Lucy Moore. I don't know if it's any good. The one I read was by Richard Buckle. Nijinsky was a genius, not only an incredibly talented dancer (and beautiful man) but a pioneering choreographer. His choreography for 'Rite of Spring' was decades ahead of its time.

    1. I will definitely check out the biographies. Thanks to your comment, I spent some time researching the other portraits by Sargent and identified all but one of the sitters. I'm glad I did because many of them seem to be fascinating characters. For example I also posted a link to some biographical information about Eleonora Randolph Sears, who seems to have been an amazing woman ahead of her time.

  3. Yeah I do love his drawings. I wish that there were more images available beyond the dover book . He supposedly did 5-600 of these so there is no shortage….just not many scans ;(