Portrait of a young girl by John Singer Sargent

Discover "Young Girl Wearing a White Muslin Blouse"
by John Singer Sargent

Using lush brushstrokes and a somber palette, Sargent masterfully depicts adolescence through the expression on the young sitter’s face

By Valerie G. Stanos


The most successful international society portrait artist of his generation, John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy. His parents were Americans who lived abroad for most of the artist’s childhood. His early education consisted of visiting museums and churches while traveling throughout Europe. Sargent began drawing at a young age and became fluent in French, Italian and German. In Paris, he took classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and also studied under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran from 1874–78. Carolus-Duran encouraged students to steer away from the traditional academic approach to painting, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez.

Sargent preferred landscapes early in his career, but soon turned to portraiture through the influence of Carolus-Duran, a successful portrait artist at that time. Portraits were more readily exhibited in the Paris Salon and Sargent realized that an artist could earn a livelihood through portrait commissions.

While Sargent’s sophisticated portraits of men and women were well-known in England and Europe, his images of children played an equally important role in establishing his reputation in England, France, and the United States. It was through his portraits and genre scenes of children that the artist conveyed feelings about his own childhood and family life.

Sargent’s portraits of children often demonstrated less of a focus on the social status of the sitter. As Robin Jaffee Frank states: “In Young Girl Wearing a White Muslin Blouse, Sargent has turned the formula inside out: he reveals the interior character of the child, but less of the costume and bearing evocative of class so often associated with his art. She appears to be distracted, and we are left wondering what has captured her attention, what she sees. Throughout his career, Sargent created many small portraits like this one—usually of friends or family, often noncommissioned—that intentionally emphasize intimacy rather than formality,” (Yale University Art Gallery, A Private View: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, New Haven, 1993, p. 76).

Using lush brushstrokes and a somber palette, Sargent masterfully depicts adolescence through the expression on the young sitter’s face. Again, Robin Jaffee Frank analyzes the portrait: “As surely as he captured the beauty of this young girl, Sargent also detected her vulnerability, the outward manifestation of a child coming to terms with an adult world. For boys, doors opened with adulthood; for girls, social constraints meant the closing of doors. The loss of freedom that girls usually experienced at some point between thirteen and sixteen years old was symbolized by the practice of gathering their hair up into a mass spiked with hairpins, called ‘clubbed-up hair.’ Here the young girl still wears her hair loose, but she is nearing that trying time described repeatedly in nineteenth-century women’s autobiographies and diaries as ‘fateful.’ Her head and upper body emerge from a green- brown background, emanating a dreamy, melancholy quality. Although Sargent responded sensitively to the child’s sensuality, it is the ambiguity of the stage of life that seems to have attracted him, and that holds us,” (ibid.).

Cover image: detail of John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Young Girl Wearing a White Muslin Blouse, c. 1882–1885 Oil on canvas, 191⁄2 x 15 inches, Signed top center