Sargent was one of the leading portrait painters of his time. His clients traveled far for their portraits and he painted many renowned personalities of his time. All the more surprised was I to find this beggar girl in a side room of the exhibition.Sargent’s portraits are unique – there is more to them than the remarkable skill of painting fabrics and depicting light. He captures the personality of his subjects, so that the portrait reveals more than just the outer shell of the person. Wherever your gaze falls first onto the canvas, they are inevitably led to the eyes – as intense as if the person was looking right into your soul.
In the gallery beside the glamorous ladies and gentlemen in suits, there is this poor girl wrapped in shawls. In her dirty white dress she almost seems to melt into the wall behind her, to disappear from the street and from society. Yet her eyes hold you firmly, her hand stretched out in silent demand. The only touch of colour in the painting is the cloth on her arm, an unsettling shade of red reminiscent of blood – it gives her outstretched hand a sense of need and urgency.
Sargent pays just as much attention and dedication to this beggar girl as to the wealthy people he portrays, reminding us that we are all equal and deserve the same respect and recognition.
Artwork: John Singer Sargent, ca. 1880, Parisian Beggar Girl. Seen in Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.