M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sargent's Studio Props

Nelson Shanks painting in the Robert Henri studio on Gramercy Park in New York

Two of the ten pilasters Mr. Shanks rescued from the Sargent studio in London.

The exterior of the building that housed Henri's top-floor studio from 1909-1929

"Lord Ribblesdale," a Sargent portrait incorporating one of the Tite Street pilasters

"The Earle of Dalhousie" standing in front of columns used in a number of Sargent portraits
Artists often use the same studio props in portraits and still lifes, and it is well documented that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) often used the same columns, scarfs, chairs, lamps, and backdrops in the portraits he created in his studios in Paris, London, and New York. Richard Ormond, Sargent's grand nephew and the leading scholar on Sargent's work, has cataloged most of those props.
In 1994, Nelson Shanks (www.nelsonshanks.com) borrowed a studio in one of the buildings where Sargent held a lease from 1887-1900 so that he could create a portrait of HRH Diana, The Princess of Wales. While working on the portrait, Shanks noticed that the building next door (that Sargent leased in 1900) was being renovated and the contractor was taking out about a dozen pilaster decorations. Shanks negotiated with the contractor to rescue the pilasters which appeared in the backgrounds of a number of Sargent paintings, and he shipped them back to the United States so they could be appreciated by students attending Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia (www.studioincamminati.org).
Recently, Mr. Shanks transported two of the pilasters to New York where he is renting the studio occupied by Robert Henri (1865-1929) from 1909-1929. I photographed them recently when I began working on a second special magazine on artists' studios that will be published in the fall of 2010 (www.artistdaily.com). The pilasters flank an unfinished portrait of Renee Fleming that Mr. Shanks is currently developing.
It's fascinating to look at Sargent's portraits (www.johnsingersargent.org) and pick out the props that he used over and over again to lend character to his depictions of lords, ladies, dowagers, and industrial barons; and it's interesting how the props were used to enhance the coloration, lighting, or composition of the paintings. For example, the pilasters certain emphasize Lord Ribblesdale's erect posture and aristocratic appearance. The columns next to The Earle of Dalhousie make him seem tall and imposing, but Ormond points out that white skin on his forehead -- probably from a hat that shaded his face -- was an inside joke that Sargent played on his insufferable client.
By the way, if you love Sargent as much as I do, you might want to join The Great Portraits Tour to London that John Howard Sanden is organizing from June 13-20, 2010 (www.portraitinstitute.com). Richard Ormond will be meeting with the group to discuss his life-long study of his great uncle. The tour will also include visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Art, and Windsor Castle.


  1. Steve, I think Nelson Shanks is a living treasure and look forward to your article on his studio. Do you have any plans to write an article on his art anytime soon? I sure would like to see some of his recent work. Thanks, Cynthia Hillis McBride

  2. This is absolutely fascinating! What an incredible way to preserve art history, and I can't think of a more worthy person to own these pieces.
    Thanks for the heads-up on Sanden's portraits tour as well.

  3. Hi Steve, Just discovered this blog of yours, very cool. I'll make sure to check back regularly. Happy New Year -


  4. So often what's best about a painting lies in the little details like these props. Seems artists care about these things more than most people, but then we've the most to gain from learning what made Sargent's great portraits work as well as they do. Great post