John Singer Sargent
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell
Oil on canvas, 38 × 30 inches
Signed at upper left: “John S. Sargent”; dated at upper right: “1903”
Exhibited: Untitled exhibition of Sargent’s recent American portraiture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1903, unnumbered. “Seventy-third Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” January 25–March 5, 1904, no. 73. “Art of Philadelphia Medicine,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 15–December 10, 1965, no. 54. “Framing the Board: A Look at Corporate Portraiture,” Mutual Assurance Company and Independence National Historic Park, Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, October 27, 1982–January 17, 1983, no. 10.
References: “The Fine Arts. The Sargent Portraits at the Museum of the Fine Arts,” Boston Transcript, June 12, 1903. “Art Notes,” New York Times, June 18, 1903. Charles H. Caffin, “American Studio Talk: Pennsylvania Academy Exhibition,” International Studio, 22 (1904), ccxxv–ccxxvi. William Howe Downes, John S. Sargent, His Life and Work (Boston: Little, Brown, 1925), 211. Evan Charteris, John Sargent (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 271. William Lyon Phelps, ed., Letters of James Whitcomb Riley (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930), 295. Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1955), 258, 446. David McKibbin, Sargent’s Boston: With an Essay and a Complete Check List of Sargent’s Portraits [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts] (Boston, 1956), 110. Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Charles Coleman Sellers, and George B. Tatum, Art of Philadelphia Medicine [exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art] (Philadelphia, 1965), 62. Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 67–68, illus. Framing the Board: A Look at Corporate Portraiture [exh. cat., Mutual Assurance Company] (Philadelphia, 1982), 8, 12. Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent and America (New York: Garland Press, 1986), 287. “The Chairman’s Corner: S. Weir Mitchell, M.D.,” Tree Views (Fall, 1994), 1–2. Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, The Later Portraits; Complete Paintings: Volume III (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), no. 454, 112–113, 292, illus.
The physician, novelist, and poet Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914) was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy family, many of whom were physicians. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fifteen but withdrew in his senior year when his father became seriously ill. After his father recovered, he decided to follow the family profession. After graduating from Jefferson Medical College in 1850, he toured Europe for a year and then returned to Philadelphia to join his father’s medical practice. Mitchell became an authority on snake venoms, and started to study neurology around 1860.
During the Civil War, while working as a surgeon at Turner’s Lane Military Hospital, Mitchell began to study the effects of battle wounds on the nervous system. His research resulted in the books Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (1864) and Injuries of Nerves and Their Consequences (1872). After the war Mitchell set up a private practice specializing in neurology. He worked at the Philadelphia Orthopedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases, and taught at the Philadelphia College of Graduates in Medicine. Mitchell was elected first president of the American Neurological Society in 1875, first president of the Philadelphia Neurological Society in 1884, and president of the Association of American Physicians in 1889. He served two terms as president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, from 1886 to 1888 and from 1892 to 1894. Active in civic and cultural affairs, he served as a director of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Institution. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Science.
As Mitchell’s practice flourished, his house at 1524 Walnut Street became a gathering place for socially prominent people and intellectuals. Mitchell devoted himself to writing novels and poetry from the 1880s on, and his Hugh Wynne (1897) and The Adventures of François (1898) were widely read. Various anecdotes about him suggest that he was somewhat eccentric, and his distinctive moustache and beard led people to liken his appearance to that of Uncle Sam. Mitchell died of influenza in Philadelphia.1
Mitchell’s father John Kearsley Mitchell, a physician and lecturer at Jefferson Medical College, had served as a trustee of the Mutual Assurance Company until his death in 1857. Silas Weir Mitchell was elected a trustee of the company in 1867 and held the position until his death in 1914, when he was succeeded by his son Dr. John K. Mitchell. Silas Weir Mitchell was chairman of the board of directors from October 7, 1901, until he resigned on September 27, 1906. On June 11, 1902, the trustees appointed a committee consisting of the portraitist John Lambert, Jr. (1861–1907), and the novelist Owen Wister (author of The Virginian) to obtain Mitchell’s portrait. Lambert later reported that he had received a letter from the expatriate artist John Singer Sargent in London stating that he expected to visit the United States that winter and was accepting private commissions for portraits. On December 10 the trustees authorized the committee to “engage the services of Mr. John S. Sargent for this purpose in the event of his visiting this country in the near future.”
By this time Sargent was recognized as the greatest international society portraitist of the day. Noted for his dazzling technical virtuosity and painterly technique, he influenced an entire generation of American portraitists. Born in Florence to expatriate American parents, Sargent received his first formal art instruction at Rome in 1868, and then sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence between 1870 and 1873. He was accepted at the Paris atelier of the portraitist Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran (1837–1917) in 1874, and attended drawing classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began to exhibit at the Salon in 1877, and visited Spain in 1879, Belgium and Holland in 1880, and Venice in 1881. He worked with Claude Monet (1840–1926) at Giverny in 1887, the year he made his first visit to the United States. In 1897 he was elected an academician of the National Academy of Design in New York, and of the Royal Academy of Art in London, and he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in France.
Sargent did not arrive in the United States until early 1903. His main objective for the trip was to work on a mural commission for the Boston Public Library, and also to paint a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C. He wrote a hasty note to Lambert on March 6 informing him that “my price for a 25 × 30 is $4000—and for a 3/4 length $5000.”2 He came to Philadelphia early in May to accept an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, took advantage of the opportunity to visit fellow artists Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase, and painted several commissioned portraits in addition to that of Mitchell. The sittings took place in Lambert’s studio, and the portrait was finished on May 13. Shortly thereafter the poet James Whitcomb Riley, another of the artist’s clients, noted that “Mr. Sargent has just put the very last touches upon a most striking and picturesque portrait of Doctor Mitchell.”3 The Mutual Assurance Company duly paid the artist $5,000 for the portrait on June 10, 1903.
According to Mutual Assurance Company lore, Mitchell and Sargent did not enjoy amicable relations. Sargent allegedly disliked Mitchell’s beard, and while painting the portrait was heard to mutter, “I mustn’t make him look like a goat.” After completing the painting he remarked, “Anyway, it is a Sargent,” to which the sitter replied, “Yes, and it is of S. Weir Mitchell.” Nevertheless, when the portrait was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1903 a local critic commented, “In Dr. Mitchell the painter had, of course, a congenial sitter, the man of imagination, of feeling, and of intellectual force. The face is very distinguished, and the expression of the eyes and mouth is dreary and abstracted.”4 This idea was repeated the following year by Charles H. Caffin who noted that the portrait was of “exceptional worth,” and suggested that Sargent had been working “with that vividness of impression which fills him when face to face with a subject whose personality arrests and holds his interest.”5 No matter how Sargent felt about Mitchell personally, he was surely aware that his subject was an individual of great professional distinction, and he portrayed him accordingly.6 The physician’s academic robes refer to the many honorary degrees he had received from prestigious American and European universities, and the book he holds probably alludes to his literary pursuits.
Sargent’s portrait of Mitchell attracted more attention when it was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts early in 1904, and consequently other attempts were made to exhibit it. The artist Albert Rosenthal (1863–1939) advised the organizers of the Department of Fine Arts of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to borrow it for the event in 1915, but the trustees of the Mutual Assurance Company denied the request on the grounds that “the portrait must not leave the possession of the Company under any circumstances.”7 Sargent himself requested an official of the Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association to include it in the retrospective exhibition of his work at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York in February 1924.8 Ultimately the artist decided against the idea, and sent the Mutual Assurance Company a telegram on February 14 stating, “Too many pictures already do not send Weir Mitchell.” After Sargent’s death in 1925 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston asked to borrow the portrait for the “Memorial Exhibition of the Works of John Singer Sargent,” but the trustees denied the request because they were reluctant to risk its being damaged in transit.9
Caffin made the most insightful evaluation of Sargent’s portrait of Mitchell when he wrote, “Not only is the brushwork more than usually fraught with inspired facility, but the likeness is admirable, and has the further value of being a serious study of psychological expression. This, indeed, is likely to remain one of the most significant of Sargent’s portraits, a remarkable presentation of a very remarkable man.”10 Shortly after Mitchell’s death, Owen Wister wrote a memorial in which he paid tribute to “his long energetic years of good deeds and public service, with his interests more alive and more various than those of many a youth of twenty, his mind incisive, his heart warm, and his spirit untarnished by cynicism.”11
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