Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel
John Singer Sargent, American, 1856–1925 American
152.4 x 102.55 cm (60 x 40 3/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery (Gallery 232)
Gretchen Osgood Warren, member of a prominent Boston family and an accomplished poet, posed with her eldest daughter at Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court in Boston (now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), where Sargent had set up a temporary studio. The works of art around the figures, including the intricately carved chairs and a fifteenth-century Madonna and Child (still visible in the Gardner’s Gothic Room), underscore the sitters’ refinement. Sargent emphasized the beauty and elegance of his sitters, positioning them in emulation of the Madonna and Child behind them, but their aloof expressions somewhat contradict their tender pose. Along with his sitters, Sargent’s free, confident, and expert technique is on display: note the silvery brushstrokes on Mrs. Warren’s dress and the thick slash of white, tinged with green, on the arm of the chair. The portrait’s imposing size, the Renaissance furniture, and Mrs. Warren’s formal pose evoke aristocratic portraits of the past. At the same time, Sargent’s loose painterly style is very modern. The composition would seem to illustrate a description of another Sargent portrait written by American critic Charles Caffin: both pictures feature “a lady link full flavor of the modern spirit . . . never exceedlink the limits of good taste.” link
Margaret (Gretchen) Osgood Warren (1871–1961) was the eldest child of Hamilton Osgood and his wife Margaret Cushing Pearmain. She spent much of her childhood abroad while her father studied surgery in Germany and later worked with Pasteur in France (on their return, Dr. Osgood introduced Pasteur’s rabies antibodies to the United States). Gretchen and her sister were educated in languages, science, art, music, and literature, and scholarly pursuits sustained her for the rest of her life. In Paris she studied singing with Gabriel Fauré and drama with Benoît-Constant Coquelin (both friends of Sargent), although she was not permitted to appear on stage or to sing professionally. In 1891 she married Fiske Warren, the youngest son of Samuel D. Warren (founder of a prosperous paper manufacturing firm). Fiske Warren was an idealist, a supporter of dress reform and the single tax, and an anti-imperialist who garnered public attention for his involvement with the political affairs of the Philippines. He went to Manila in 1901–2 and moved the family to Oxford, England, in 1904–7; upon her return Gretchen Warren was offered, and declined, academic positions at both Wellesley and Radcliffe colleges.
During Sargent’s 1903 visit to the United States, Isabella Stewart Gardner invited him to paint at Fenway Court, the Venetian-style palace she had recently built in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood to house her art collection. Sargent made several portraits in its elaborate Gothic Room, each one reminding the viewers of the friendship between artist and collector, as well as the relationship between the historical masterpieces of the collection and the art of Sargent and his contemporaries. Although Fenway Court had opened to the public in February 1903, the Gothic Room remained off-limits. The room, on the third floor with large windows overlooking the central courtyard, provided an evocative setting for Sargent’s portraits; it was dominated by the artist’s 1888 portrait of Mrs. Gardner and was richly decorated according to her unique sensibilities with paintings, furniture, fabrics, and architectural elements.
The Warrens’ sittings were recorded in a number of photographs (now in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).link Sargent arranged Mrs. Warren and her daughter in grand Renaissance armchairs, and used an elaborate gilt candelabra and a fifteenth-century polychrome Madonna and Child as a backdrop. This sculpture inspired the unusual pose of mother and daughter: Rachel rests her head on her mother’s shoulder in imitation of the tender gesture of the Virgin and Child. The pose draws attention both to the influence of art of the past in Sargent’s work and to the intimate and informal familial relationship between the sitters. However, twelve-year-old Rachel seems to strain uncomfortably to fulfill this ideal of maternal affection; she gazes away from her mother with an abstracted expression that seems to exemplify a new stage of childhood that was gaining currency in scientific circles: adolescence.
Gretchen Warren sits perched and conventionally pretty in a confection of pink and white satin that belonged to her sister-in-law, for Sargent refused to allow her to wear her own choice, green velvet.link Sargent does not seem to have known the Warrens well, despite the family’s close association with the arts. The artist was no doubt thinking of picture making and Mrs. Warren’s “great masses of golden hair”; he united his composition with bold, slashing strokes of red, pink and gold. The sophisticated, well-traveled, and educated Mrs. Warren, however—whom the Boston press described as “not only lovely to behold, but . . . clever and interesting” link—reportedly found her presentation too superficial. She often lent it, first to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in June 1903, where it was well received; as one critic wrote: “What an heirloom to hand down! There are few portraits of the English school, even by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which can be compared to this group for the note of genuineness and human tenderness which emanate from it.” link The painting was later lent to other exhibitions, where it enhanced Sargent’s reputation as a master of psychological portraiture and dashing technique.
The MFA acquired the painting in 1964, thanks in part to the gift of the then-grown Rachel Warren Barton. The acquisition was hailed by the MFA’s historian, Walter Muir Whitehill, not only for Sargent’s artistry but also because of the Museum’s long-standing relationship with the Warren family: Fiske Warren’s brothers, Samuel D. Warren and Edward Perry Warren, were important collectors and patrons of the MFA.
1. Charles Henry Caffin, American Masters of Painting (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1902), 61–62.
2. See Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 102–4.
3. Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 63.
4. “Current of Fiske Warren’s Life Changed by the Filipinos,” Boston Sunday Globe, December 29, 1907.
5. “The Fine Arts. The Sargent Portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts,” Boston Transcript, June 12, 1903, n.p.
This text was adapted from Gillian Shallcross, The MFA Handbook: A Guide to the Collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston link, rev. ed. (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009), and Erica E. Hirshler’s entry in John Singer Sargent, ed. Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, exh. cat. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).