Friday, September 6, 2013
Amon Carter acquires “destination” portrait by American painter John Singer Sargent
Experts estimate its purchase price near $5 million.
FORT WORTH The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth has announced one of the most important acquisitions in its half-century history, a portrait of Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth painted by John Singer Sargent in 1890.
The purchase price was not released, but art experts in both the commercial and academic worlds estimate it to be about $5 million. The oil-on-canvas, titled Edwin Booth, rivals the Amon Carter’s benchmark acquisition of Thomas Eakins’ The Swimming Hole (1884-85) in art-historical significance.
Booth was renowned as a member of the dynastic acting family that included John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln and Edwin’s brother. Sargent received the commission at the height of his own career as a portrait painter, and it may be among his greatest American male portraits — larger in scale than those he did of John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt.
“Sargent’s bold, audacious skill at handling paint captures with subtlety Booth’s complex personality,” Andrew Walker, Amon Carter director, said Thursday. “We have long been a museum that collects works of singular achievement, and this acquisition marks a new high for the Amon Carter collection — a destination picture for Fort Worth.”
The painting was commissioned by the Player’s Club in New York, a private club founded by Booth on the model of London’s Garrick Club, whose members included titans of the theater and business worlds. It presents Booth not playing a particular dramatic role, but as an important man standing in front of the fireplace in the club’s large reception room, which was designed to Booth’s specifications by famed architect Stanford White.
The portrait, meant to be installed over the fireplace in another large room of the club, was painted three years before Booth’s death in 1893.
Edwin Booth is both a major work of art and a powerful document of historical imagination, addressing the role of the arts in American Gilded Age society.
It represents a self-made man, whose importance on the stage mattered less to Sargent (there are no props, costumes or painted scenes) than his social status. Only the red glow of the hearth behind him is a visual cue to Booth’s genius, and the great classical stone bracket on the right of the figure makes pictorial reference to Greco-Roman civilization, which he prized throughout his career.
The portrait joins the Sargent’s delightful and somewhat earlier half-length portrait of the young Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, acquired by the museum in 1999. It will be on display starting Friday in the main gallery.
It also could be tallied as part of an intriguing migration of important paintings to the South and Southwest from New York institutions. The most notable of those was the purchase of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.
Rick Brettell is the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair at the University of Texas at Dallas.
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