Painted in 1902, at the height of John Singer Sargent's preeminence as a society portrait painter, William Marshall Cazalet is a grand example of the large, majestic works that brought him unparalleled public acclaim until the end of his career.
William Marshall Cazalet (1865-1932) was the son of Edward Cazalet and Elizabeth Marshall of Edinburgh, Scotland. Of French Huguenot descent, the Cazalets were exiled in England and regained their wealth by a series of successful commercial enterprises, particularly in Russia. Cazalet married Maud Lucia Heron-Maxwell and had four children. Sargent painted Cazalet's portrait as well as a companion portrait of his wife and two of their children (Private collection, fig. 1) commissioned to fit into two matching frames attributed to Grinling Gibbons set into the paneling of the dining room of Fairlawne, the Cazalet's country home in Kent (fig. 2).
Sargent began discussing the commission with the Cazalets in 1898. The Cazalets approached the artist through Mrs. George Swinton, whom the artist had recently painted. From Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, Sargent wrote, "I am delighted that Mrs. Cazalet should wish me to paint her--as usual the difficulty is when? I am coming home very soon, to plunge into five or six portraits, some of them already begun, and I am pretty certain that I will not be able to undertake a new order this season. I should be awfully sorry if this sounds too discouraging--for she is such a pretty woman and ought to make a charming picture."
Sargent was then asked about the possibility of painting a companion portrait of Mr. Cazalet. In a letter to Mrs. Swinton the same summer, the artist wrote, "Yes, of course I should like to paint Mr. Cazalet. But can he and his wife wait--I am afraid until next spring? It is useless to promise to do anything before, I am up to my ears in previous orders, and must keep at least six months for my decorations. Since you, as thanks to you, my prices have gone up & I now ask 1000 guineas for a full-length--You had better tell them that."
Letters from the artist to the Cazalets track the two years from commission to completion. By 1899, the artist visited Fairlawne to inspect the paneling and noted "that the pictures ought to be dark ones rather than light." In July 1899, he declined a summer invitation to Fairlawne to begin painting the portraits due to his Boston mural commitments and further postponed work into early 1900.
It is clear that part of the delay was the difficulty the artist found in the composition and scale of the pictures due to the necessary size of the canvases dictated by the panels. In order to resolve this, he requested to include a horse in Mr. Cazalet's portrait and two of their children in his wife's. Sargent wrote to Mr. Cazalet, "In view of the great size, as I remember them, the panels, I dare say I may ask you, purely on my own account of course and without altering the price of the picture, to allow me to introduce your children into Mrs. Cazalet's picture and your horse, or your famous [illegible] into yours. This in case you have no objection and in case I find difficulty in filling such a large canvass with a single figure." The equine inclusion in William Cazalet's portrait was appropriate as he was a keen supporter of West Kent Hunt and was an enthusiastic and successful breeder of racehorses. William Marshall Cazalet is the only portrait painted by the artist in which Sargent included a horse.
Finally, on January 18, 1900, Sargent wrote in a letter to Mrs. Cazalet, "I shall be ready for you as arranged by the first of February...About the other question, I think I would rather begin with your picture first--and get a good start on it before beginning Mr. Cazalet's which I should have to do in another studio if there is to be a horse." In a later letter to Mr. Cazalet, the artist wrote, "I shall be ready for you by the 1st of May or if you are willing to come sooner I could give you Saturday 28th, Sunday and Monday. We could have two sittings a day on those days and might accomplish a good deal. Of course it is essential to have the horse for the first general sittings." (R. Ormond, E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, vol. III, New Haven, Connecticut, 2003, pp. 47, 49, 79, 81) In May 1901, Sargent showed Mrs. Cazalet's portrait at the Royal Academy, although the artist had yet to finish its companion. Sargent kept the paintings for another year, finally completing them in July 1902.
Sargent depicts William Cazalet in a brilliant red hunting coat highlighted with gilt buttons, a crisp white shirt, and polished black riding boots with buckram tops and spurs. The artist illuminates Cazalet's face, highlighting his handsome features and at the same time adeptly capturing the shine of the buttons on his coat and the spurs of his boots. As in Sargent's best portraits, the sitter projects a forceful presence, combined with a quality of elegance and social ease. The composition is in itself straightforward, consisting of a full-length portrait of William Cazalet. To this, Sargent has added many of the refinements of technique that mark this as one of his classic works of portraiture, particularly Cazalet's engagement with the viewer, the elegance of finery and the dashing brushwork with which the artist paints the horse and background scenery. The sitter's garments, the pose of the horse and the wooded background, clearly demonstrate the inspiration of the equestrian portraits of Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds (fig. 3).
Sargent follows in the British tradition of portraying the nobleman as an athletic horseman, translating the fine surface of his clothing, the riding whip and boots as a certain social type. At the turn of the century, portraiture was the prevailing taste in Britain. At the time, Sargent's clientele changed from the bourgeoisie to the aristocracy. With this change, his style evolved as his new subjects expected their portraits to convey their noble lineage, redolent of the tradition of grand European portraiture. However, this style was sought after not only by those with long lineage but also those who wanted to be elevated socially through noble appearance. "Recognized props and accoutrements served as visual clues to define the nobility's social and historical status; historicity of costume and setting placed the sitters at a remove from the world of ephemeral, fashion; and the finished portraits hung in harmonious visual correspondence to the portraits of their ancestors by earlier old masters. In compositional terms, his figures became taller and more imposing than their earlier counterparts, costume became more splendid and referential, settings grander and more abstract." (John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, p. 3)
In part due to his "instinctive refinement," Sargent became the most sought-after portraitist of his age. According to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, "By 1900 Sargent's position as the premier Anglo-American portrait painter of his generation seemed assured. Critics were describing him as a living old master, an artistic colossus who towered above his contemporaries." (John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits, vol. III, New Haven, Connecticut, 2003, p. 1) 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, which were revered more as paintings rather than simply as 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 earlier years, Sargent had alternately enjoyed critical success and negative reviews of his work. In Paris, as a student of Carolus-Duran, 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 artist showed "promise above the ordinary." 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 and 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) also attracted favorable attention from reviewers.
Following the aftermath of the scandalous Madame X, Sargent left Europe and traveled to the United States in 1887. This brief trip proved to be a fruitful one, which helped restore his career. He used his time in the States to experiment by painting diverse portraits, which honed his skills and allowed him to work without the anxiety of constant critical reviews by established European institutions. By the time he embarked for London, "he had developed a new and successful style of portrait, one that retained the freshness and mood of elegant informality of his most inventive early work but was tempered by a less 'eccentric' look." (G.A. Reynolds, "Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, New York, 1986, p. 158)
By 1902, Sargent had reached the pinnacle of his career. Christian Brinton wrote in Modern Artists, "Beyond all question he is the most conspicuous of living portrait painters. Before his eyes pass in continuous procession the world of art, science, and letters, the world financial, diplomatic, or military, and the world frankly social. To-day comes a savant, a captain of industry, or a slender, troubled child. To-morrow it will be an insinuating Semitic Plutus; next week may bring some fresh-tinted Diana, radiant with vernal bloom. Everyone, from poet to general, from duchess to dark-eyed dancer finds a place in this shifting throng." (as quoted in "Sargent's Late Portraits," John Singer Sargent, p. 147)
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 William Marshall Cazalet 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.