John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)
76.83 x 63.18 cm (30 1/4 x 24 7/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery (Gallery 232)
Capri had been a favorite destination for painters since the early 1800s. Travelers were drawn both by the natural beauties of the island’s turquoise water and dramatic coastline and by the seemingly exotic nature of its history and inhabitants. It was also known for the exceptional beauty of its people and for its relaxed way of life, as well as for the cultural and architectural legacy of ancient Phoenician, Greek, and Roman settlers and conquerors. Twenty years after Sargent’s visit in 1878, the American painter Francis Millet captured something of the appeal of Capri’s rural agricultural society for artists with his remark that “the primitive life of the peasant remains much the same in all essential features … undisturbed by the gleam of the white umbrella or the red flash of the Baedeker.”  At the time of Sargent’s stay on the island, several artist friends of his were also visiting, perhaps an added inducement for his selection of the place as his summer painting destination.
Sargent, like other artists before and after him, was in search of the exotic. His trip to Capri in August of 1878 was one of the many sojourns made to such picturesque locales during the course of his career. During his stay on the island, Sargent was befriended by an English painter, Frank Hyde, who had a studio at the abandoned monastery of Santa Teresa. Sargent used both Hyde’s studio and his exceptional model, Rosina Ferrara, who was described by Sargent’s early biographer, the Hon. Evan Charteris, as “an Ana-Capri girl, a magnificent type, about seventeen years of age, her complexion a rich nut brown, with a mass of blue-black hair, very beautiful, and of an Arab type.” 
A Capriote is one of several images Sargent made of Ferrara in profile. Here Sargent adapted the conventional image of picturesque types so popular at the Paris Salon in a more lyrical composition, perhaps inspired by the late dreamlike forest compositions [17.3234] of the mid-nineteenth century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Ferrara’s striking, somewhat contrived pose adds stylistic innovation to this tradition. Her twisted stance echoes the forms of the branches, expressing a kinship between them of wild and natural beauty. Sargent equates his model with a classically inspired dryad, making her an elemental part of the wild Capri landscape.
A Capriote is the first of three virtually identical versions of the same composition; in March 1879, Sargent submitted it to the second annual exhibition of the recently founded Society of American Artists in New York. One of the other versions (each in private collections), both now entitled Dans les Oliviers à Capri, was sent to the Paris Salon that same year. Critical reaction to the composition was mixed: this painting received acclaim in New York, while the second version in Paris was praised by several writers, but also inspired criticism from more conservative reviewers. It was caricatured (as were many paintings at the Salon) as resembling the struggles of the mythological Laocoön against constricting serpents.
A Capriote is the primary version of the three compositions. The MFA canvas bears traces of Sargent’s underdrawing and evidence of several changes in the model’s pose and in the arrangement of her skirt. These revisions suggest something of Sargent’s process as he developed the composition toward its final form. On its debut in March 1879 at the second annual exhibition of the recently founded Society of American Artists in New York, A Capriote was described as a “Mediterranean idyll … [with] delightful coolness, exquisite delicacy and bright effect of light,” and earned Sargent praise as “an artist of such freshness and originality that we feel justified in basing great hopes upon his future work.”  Sargent sold A Capriote to lumber baron Ichabod Thomas Williams (1826–1899), an American collector with an important French art collection.
1. Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October 1898, 858.
2. Evan Edward Charteris, John Sargent (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 48.
3. Daily Graphic (New York), 8 March 1879, 58.
4. Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1874–1882 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 161.
This text was adapted from Erica E. Hirshler’sentry in John Singer Sargent, Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, exh. cat. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
Lower right: John S. Sargent/Capri. 1878
1879, Daniel Cottier (1837-1891), New York; March 10-29, 1879, Sale of the Society of American Artists Second Exhibition to Ichabod T. Williams (1824-1899), New York; February 2, 1915, sold by the estate of Ichabod Williams to Knoedler Galleries, New York for $2950; sold by Knoedler Galleries to Elizabeth Milbank Anderson (1850-1921), New York; February 16, 1922, E.M. Anderson Collection Sale, The Plaza, New York, lot 6, to Scott and Fowles, New York for $2700; 1922, sold by Scott and Fowles to Helen Swift (Mrs. Francis) Neilson, New York; 1946, bequest of Helen Swift Neilson to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 10, 1946)
Bequest of Helen Swift Neilson