By far the most renowned portraitist of his generation, John Singer Sargent painted Mrs. Richard H. Derby in New York in 1888, as he was just beginning to realize an unparalleled level of success in America. While accomplished in many areas of painting, it was portraiture that brought Sargent his greatest measure of fame. Containing many of the most desirable hallmarks of the artist's oeuvre, Mrs. Richard H. Derby stands today as a powerful and engaging portrait of an elegant woman.
At the end of January in 1888, shortly before painting Mrs. Richard H. Derby, Sargent had his first solo exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, Massachusetts. The exhibit included Sargent's striking portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1887-88, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts), who was one of the greatest private collectors of American Art and a pillar of Boston's high society at the turn of the twentieth century. Building on the strong support Sargent had already found among Boston's elite, the publicity of this exhibition of twenty-two works helped pave the way for a lucrative portraiture business in New York. Sargent historian Charles M. Mount writes that some 300 people crowded into the St. Botolph opening reception and that this "exhibition of his works in Boston was clearly the most impressive the city had seen. Its fame followed him to New York, and was vigorously discussed." (C.M. Mount, John Singer Sargent, London, 1957, p. 118) New York presented more of a challenge for Sargent as there was greater competition for commissions and "here he won commissions from the leaders of society on the basis of merit rather than nepotism. Personal recommendation continued to oil the wheels, but Sargent's new patrons were strangers employing him because they wanted the best, not out of personal regard." (R. Ormond, E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, Complete Paintings, vol. I, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998, p. 196)
Mrs. Richard H. Derby, born Sarah Coleman Alden (1850-1907), was a prominent member of New York society. She came from a family whose descendants include John and Priscilla Alden who arrived on the Mayflower. In November 1877, she married Richard H. Derby, a distinguished doctor originally from Litchfield, Connecticut, at St. Thomas Church in New York. It is believed that Julian Alden Weir--the American Impressionist painter, who was a former fellow student of Sargent's and a cousin of Mrs. Derby--might have made the introduction between Sargent and the sitter. Another possible link connecting the two was the architect and designer Stanford White. He was a descendant of Elias Haskett Derby, a founding father of Salem, Massachusetts. The Derby's son, Richard, married Ethel Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. In Sargent, White "felt a real affinity as a fellow modernist," and he helped make connections for the painter in New York (John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, p. 196). The evening after the St. Boltoph show opening, on January 31, 1888 in New York, White held a dinner party for Sargent and Mount notes that White was a friend of Dr. Derby (John Singer Sargent, 1957, p. 125). White's architectural firm partner also rented a house from the Derbys at 9 West 35th Street. (John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, p. 211)
Mrs. Derby sat a considerable number of times for Sargent in his Washington Square studio. Her daughter believed there were eighteen sittings and recalled her family adoring the artist. During his visits, Sargent would play piano and have lunch with the family. She also recalled that her mother wished to be painted in a white satin dress, "with black lace and a chartreuse sash, but he insisted on the pink one." Sargent was dissatisfied with the work, until at the end, he made the final addition of the lush green cloak. (Mrs. Tucker's recollections are quoted in a letter from her brother, Dr. Richard Derby, to David McKibbin, 30 September 1947, McKibbin papers as quoted in John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, p. 211)
Mrs. Richard H. Derby depicts its fashionably dressed sitter full-length and the reserved composition with its dark background is reminiscent of traditional American portraiture of an earlier era, such as the work of John Singleton Copley. Notably, Copley's Portrait of Francis Montresor of New York (circa 1771, Private collection) has a similar refined subject set against a dark backdrop that highlights the sitter's porcelain skin and the sitter's elegant clothing, signifying her wealth. Sargent became the most sought-after portraitist during the Gilded Age for wealthy patrons in part due to his style, which was defined by his instinctive refinement. Charles Caffin wrote in American Masters of Painting, "It would be quite impossible for him to have any feelings toward his 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... 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)
As in the best of Sargent's portraits, in Mrs. Richard H. Derby the sitter projects a quiet presence with a quality of elegance and social ease. 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, and the dashing brushwork with which he paints her extraordinary gown, its delicate black lace overlay, her glittering hand fan and her jeweled hair clip. He skillfully juxtaposes rich, tactile fabrics with the smoothness of the sitter's porcelain skin. Sargent illuminates Mrs. Derby's face, highlighting her delicate features while masterfully capturing the various textures of her finery and opulent accessories with the bravura brushwork that characterizes his finest paintings.
Since their creation over a century ago, works such as Mrs. Richard H. Derby have been celebrated for their brilliance and have established Sargent's preeminence as the greatest portraitist of the Gilded Age.