In August 1907 the de Glehns joined John Singer Sargent and his entourage at Purtud in the Val d'Aosta. Every morning, according to Jane Emmet de Glehn's letter to her mother, they would return to a favourite sunny spot on the edge of a pine forest where Sargent's nephews, Jean-Louis, Guillaume and Conrad Ormond would bathe in an icy brook. 'The children look so jolly rushing around the sunny meadow, naked and rolling in the cristal [sic] water'. Despite her evident pleasure in the scene Jane was posing for Sargent in mornings and Wilfrid 'by the brook in a white dress, parasol etc' in afternoons - 'he did a lovely sketch and is going on with it today', she wrote. While posing she caught a cold, but any discomfort she might have felt was put to one side as she sat by the babbling stream and listened, every few minutes to 'the roar of an avalanche' (letter dated 13 August 1907, Emmet Family Papers, Archives of American Art).
De Glehn's resulting canvases are among the most impressionistic works he painted. 'His impression is the impression, to be carried through and transferred to us in the final stage of the work', according to T. Martin Wood in 1912. We can therefore assume that these 'out-of-doors figure-pictures in which women in fairy-white-dresses enter into the life of a summer day' were not retouched in the studio. Wood compared his work to that of Watteau but found de Glehn lighter and freer than his eighteenth-century counterpart, partly as a result of the lifting of social constraints (T. Martin Wood, 'The Paintings of Wilfrid G von Glehn', The Studio, vol. LVI, 1912, pp. 4, 7). However, there was an added point in the discussion of where this Impressionism might lead. Should it be fundamentally an offshoot of Realism and Naturalism, or should it be about the decorative? Was it the language for dreams and imaginings? De Glehn would answer these questions in a number of fascinating ways. (Dr Jane Hamilton, In Search of a Golden Age, 2008, Studio Publication CCXXXIX, p. 26).
At least two canvases were painted on this particular occasion. One, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d'Aosta, (1907, David Messum, c. 1994) shows Jane in profile, without a parasol, but seated by a darker, deeper stretch of river, flowing off to the right (L. Wortley, 1989, p. 30-1; K. McConkey 1995, p. 131; see also www.deglehn.com/alps_1.htm). The present viewpoint, in full sunlight, shows the grassy bank that features in Sargent family photographs (W. Adelson et al., Sargent Abroad, Figures and Landscapes, New York, 1997 p. 69).
Comparisons with the work of De Glehn's companion on the same occasion are apposite. During this particular summer, Sargent had reached the momentous decision to reduce his portrait commissions and on the banks of the mountain stream, with members of his family dressed in exotic costumes, he returned to the impressionism of his youth. The De Glehns were congenial companions and Wilfrid, a chess partner. So close were the two artists that, Sargent painted a watercolour at a location near that of the present work (Brook among Rocks, 1907, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Elsie Faye Loeffler). The large triangle boulder at the top edge of the watercolour appears in both pictures. Others, such as the splendid Dolce Far Niente (fig. 1) were executed close by.
As the weather grew colder, Sargent and the de Glehns travelled south, briefly passing through Florence before spending much of September at the Grand Hotel at Frascati where they painted in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia, and where Sargent executed his celebrated joint portrait of the de Glehns by the fountain (The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, 1907, Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection).
With the present work, Jane clearly felt that Wilfrid had attained something of Sargent's lucidity. Having trained at the Art Students League in New York and under Frederick MacMonnies in Paris, hers was a practiced eye. On their travels, she too would demonstrate her prowess in careful pencil drawings of friends and vivid oil sketches, matching those of her husband. In a sense therefore, Jane Emmet de Glehn by a Stream, Val d'Aosta is the by-product of a unique artistic collaboration involving muse, master and painter.