Painted in 1884, Mademoiselle Suzanne Poirson is exemplary of the work that brought John Singer Sargent public acclaim throughout his career. In this work, the sitter projects a quiet presence, combined with a quality of elegance and social ease. The composition is in itself straightforward, consisting of a three-quarter length depiction of the young girl. To this, Sargent has added many of the refinements of technique that mark this as one of his classic works of portraiture, particularly the sitter's engagement with the viewer, her luminescence and the dashing brushwork with which the artist paints her. The influence of Grand Manner portraiture, by artists such as Velázquez and Van Dyck, on Sargent's work can be seen with the deep red background Mademoiselle Poirson is set against.
Suzanne Poirson was the daughter of Paul and Seymourina Poirson. Her father owned the studio at 41, boulevard Berthier to which Sargent had moved in 1883. Her family believes that this portrait and a portrait of her mother (1885, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan) were painted in lieu of rent when Sargent was receiving few commissions after the scandalous debut of his famous portrait, Madame X. (R. Ormond and E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 120) In her portrait, Sargent paints her in a dark coat highlighted by a bright red bow. He skillfully juxtaposes rich, tactile fabrics with the smoothness of her porcelain-like skin. The artist illuminates Mademoiselle Poirson's face, highlighting her delicate features and at the same time adeptly capturing the texture of her clothing and the pin in her hair.
Sargent became the most sought-after portraitist for the wealthy society due to his "instinctive refinement." Charles Caffin wrote in American Masters of Painting comparing Sargent's work to his contemporary Giovanni Boldini, "It would be quite impossible for him to have any feelings toward his [Sargent's] subjects other than those of a true gentleman; and, though he may represent in a lady a full flavour of the modern spirit, he never allows the modernity to exceed the limits of good taste. For the same reason Sargent's pictures, though many of them have a restlessness of their own, seem quiet alongside Boldini's. The latter makes a motive of nervous tenuosity, and his pictures, if seen frequently, become wiry in suggestion, and defeat their own purpose of being vibrative; but Sargent's, controlled by a fine sobriety of feeling, another phase of his unfailing taste and tact, retain their suppleness. Their actuality is all the more convincing because it is not the motive, but an incident." (as quoted in G.A. Reynolds, "Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1986, p. 176)
Indeed, Sargent had become so successful as a portrait painter that he began to decline commissions in favor of subject pictures and landscapes. However, his reputation as a portraitist had already been established among critics and the public. Sargent's handling of painterly brushstrokes as well as his sitters' comfortable poses and easy gazes had changed critics' view of his portraits, they were seen more as paintings rather than straight forward representations of the sitter. In 1899, a critic wrote that the faces of Sargent's portraits seemed to "presage the perplexities and anxieties [that] loom up before the contemporary man and woman." (as quoted in T. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1994, p. 75)
In his early years as a professional artist, Sargent had not always met with complete success. In the 1870s, he had been alternately enjoying critical success and suffering from negative reviews of his work. As a student of Carolus-Duran in Paris, however, he compared favorably to his peers. "He was older than his years, he was better educated, he was more worldly, he was confident, and he had the high patina of sophistication. His fellow students were dazzled by him, and baffled... He was forbiddingly superior, yet modest; at best he was a perplexing enigma. No definition could help observers to negotiate his character." (S. Olson, "On the Question of Sargent's Nationality," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1987, p. 17) After Carolus-Duran's first review of Sargent's work, the stern master is reported to have concluded that the young man "showed 'promise above the ordinary.'" (C. Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1982, p. 37) Only four years after his first formal instruction, Sargent's The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1878. In 1881 he won a second-class medal at the Paris Salon for Madame Subercaseaux (Private collection, Santiago, Chile). The following year, his El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts) and Lady with a Rose (Charlotte Louise Burkhardt) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) attracted favorable attention from reviewers.
While accomplished in many areas of painting, it was portraiture that brought Sargent his greatest measure of fame. Since their creation over a century ago, works such as Mademoiselle Suzanne Poirson have been celebrated for their audacity, brilliance, and power, and they have established for Sargent his pre-eminent place as the greatest portraitist of the Gilded Age.