The Dinner Party
Henry Sargent, American, 1770–1845 American
156.53 x 126.36 cm (61 5/8 x 49 3/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Prudence S. and William M. Crozier, Jr. Gallery (Gallery 121)
Henry Sargent’s painting gives us a glimpse of a fashionable dinner party in 1820s Boston. The dishes for the main course have been cleared; the tablecloth has been removed; and nuts, fruit, and wine are being offered for dessert. The single candle on the table is provided to enable the diners to light their tobacco. The shutters are drawn to keep out the sun, for during this period dinner parties were held in the middle of the afternoon. This gathering may represent a meeting of a specific group: the Wednesday Evening Club, which met weekly for dinner and discussion at members’ houses. The club, which survives today, consisted in Sargent’s time of four clergymen, four doctors, four lawyers, and four “merchants, manufacturers or gentlemen of literature and leisure.”linkGuests were sometimes included at the dinners, which would explain why there are more than sixteen in attendance here. Sargent, possibly the third figure on the right side of the table, was a successful politician and inventor as well as a talented painter, and he may well have belonged to the club; however, no membership records were kept at this time, so it is not certain what convivial gathering is represented here.
In addition to being an invaluable document of social customs among Federal Boston’s elite, the painting preserves the appearance of an upper-class interior. This elegant room was probably Sargent’s own dining room at 10 Franklin Place on Tontine Crescent, a handsome row of townhouses built by celebrated architect Charles Bulfinch in 1793–94. The contents of the room—the sideboard (a new form whose serpentine front allowed diners to reach across it with ease), the expensive Wilton carpet (here protected by a green baize “crumb cloth”), paintings, a large looking glass, and a dining table big enough to accommodate many guests comfortably—conform to those recommended by Thomas Sheraton, an English designer and champion of good taste. The cellaret link in the foreground, used to cool bottles of wine, was also a new form; it remained in Sargent’s family and was given to the Museum by one of the artist’s descendants.
Although the painting records a private event, it was created for exhibition. In the 1820s, visitors willing to pay 25¢ could see it in a gallery operated by the drawing master David Brown at 2 Cornhill Square, Boston. Business was brisk; presumably the picture was enjoyed not only by Sargent’s social circle but also by those who could not afford such luxurious surroundings yet enjoyed a peek into such an elite and opulent world. Because this was a commercial success, Brown commissioned Sargent to paint The Tea Partylink. Beginning in 1824, Brown toured the paintings together.
1. Sketch of the Wednesday Evening Club by Samuel Kirkland Lothrop (Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1873), n.p., quoted in Jane C. Nylander, “Henry Sargent’s Dinner Party and Tea Party,” Magazine Antiques, May 1982, 1172.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).