John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Ena Wertheimer: The painting that challenged sexual norms

Sargent painted both Lee and Anstruther Thomson in highly unconventional portraits. Lee is wearing glasses and has her hair pulled back, giving her a masculine appearance that is heightened by her collar and tie. Anstruther Thomson also wears a collar and tie, and stands with her thumbs hooked into her lapels in a commanding manner.

These were both private portraits, so Sargent was free to take greater liberties, but he pushed boundaries even with commissioned portraits, when he knew his sitters came from liberal or progressive families.

“There’s something more dynamic about the poses he chooses for these women,” says Fowle. Alice Thursby, who was born into a politically liberal family and studied art in Paris, is a case in point. “She’s rising from the chair, it’s an active pose, it’s very unusual even in Sargent’s oeuvre,” says Fowle. The way in which Thursby’s left hand, pushed powerfully into her hip, draws attention to her wedding ring is also significant. “I think the point is that her marriage is not going to tie her down. Her husband was an engineer and had landed estates so she was moving into that more conventional life and yet she herself comes across as very independent and liberal-minded.”

See also  11 megtekinthető film idén decemberben

The fact that she is not wearing an evening gown is another factor that emphasises her modernity. “He often made the decision, especially with younger women, to show them in daywear as modern women, which was quite unconventional,” says Fowle.

The hand-on-hip pose, which can be seen in his portraits of Louise Burckhardt and Mrs Edward L Davis, was another way in which he emphasised his appreciation of emancipated women. “It’s definitely something that signals confidence. It’s a very commanding pose. It was quite often associated with the idea of New Women, particularly in caricatures. It was associated with masculinity and confidence,” says Fowle.

Fowle believes that two of Sargent’s most celebrated portraits, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, also show his fondness for strong women. Lady Agnew had reluctantly entered into a marriage with a much older man but appears to have preferred the lively company of those closer to her own age. Sargent captures a sensuality that she perhaps felt obliged to suppress under normal circumstances. For Terry, he went so far as to invent a pose that does not occur in the play, and which serves to emphasise the actress’s commanding presence both on- and off-stage. 

See also  Do not Fear Darling evaluation: Filled with 'half-baked concepts'

But for sheer joie de vivre and a determination to gleefully ignore societal prejudice, nothing can beat Ena Wertheimer in A Vele Gonfie.

Fashioned by Sargent is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until 15 January 2024, when it moves to Tate Britain until 7 July 2024.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.