Last year I had the chance to visit the Smithsonian. What a wonderful collection of museums! The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum art huge highlights for me.

One of the many masterpieces in the collection is John Singer Sargent’s painting of Elizabeth Chanler. Sargent imbued such a graceful confidence into this portrait. It was painted in 1893. I managed to get some really nice captures of it!

Because of when it was painted, and the subject being wealthy, we do have a good surviving photo of her. I thought it was interesting to compare!

Okay, onto the stunning details.

I know that when I paint hands and fingers, I rarely tell the model to make your fingers look like a jumble of elegant pasta and intertwine them all so it’s INSANELY CHALLENGING to paint. And then, AND THEN Sargent had the audacity to paint them with about 27 brushstrokes and convey the bones, the tension, the temperature shifts… it is all there. Reduced, simplified, complex, intentional, brilliant.


Look at the rings… how dare you Sargent! They look like a couple of roughly made artificial fishing flies, ready for some unsuspecting trout. And look at how subtle the line is between the fingers. Then you step back a few steps and the rings turn into detailed and elaborate Tiffany jewelry with their color and shimmer. Note how simply he painted the band and shadow of the ring on her fingers. It works! Sargent painted in haiku. Only the most necessary of syllables make it into the final draft.

Check out the pendant of her necklace!

Here are some more details.

Look at the work that went into making this eye look like it was simply painted. Note how find the brushwork gets but it still feels spontaneous. I love the color in the sclera of the eye as well as the scumbled touches here and there.

The grey under the tip of the nose! And look at that bright red dragged over the lips on the left hand side. The very warm color of the nostril on the left looks like it was paint on top of the lighter skin, reverse of how I would approach it.

Yep, that is an ear. I know. How? It just is. And when you back up you can see all the anatomy your brain wants to invent because the hints are there. The clues that engage your mind and tell you that you know what this is.

It is just so good. Such a masterful use of paint and reduction of extraneous details. Perfection and beauty.

If you want to download the REALLY big file, you can grab it here


I hope you enjoyed this post! I love trying to get good captures of paintings in museums. I think this is one of the very best I’ve managed.


Howard Lyon