For many years, John Singer Sargent’s enormous portrait of Henry Lee Higginson could be seen in the Barker Center. As a result of the generosity of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when the Harvard Art Museums open this November, the painting will hang in a gallery that showcases the breadth of Sargent’s work.
We recently sat down with Ethan Lasser, the Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art, to learn more about this impressive painting.
Q Who was Henry Lee Higginson and why did Harvard University commission his portrait?
A Higginson was a former major in the Union Army during the Civil War, and was also one of the great philanthropists of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Boston.
He was a huge benefactor of Harvard. In 1903, a group of students pooled their resources and commissioned Sargent to paint Higginson, who had donated funds for the construction of the Freshman Union (now the Barker Center).
Q Why did the students pick Sargent to paint Higginson’s portrait?
A Sargent, who was coming home from abroad for a brief trip to Boston to work on the murals at the Boston Public Library, was the celebrity painter of the day. I imagine that’s why they picked him. Of the other painters available, they went with an American who had enjoyed international success.
Q Can you tell us about the significance of the painting’s details?
A The portrait of Higginson is very dark and smoky, with a Rembrandt-like or baroque quality. In fact, you can’t really make out the background at all. By virtue of its huge scale, most of the work is given over to this smoky backdrop as opposed to the figure, which only occupies about one half of the canvas.
The painting is laden with meaning: Higginson has a large scar on his cheek from a Civil War sword fight, and the cloak from his uniform sits on his lap. At the time of painting, the conflict was almost 50 years past; as veterans began to die there was a fear that their heroism would be forgotten. He’s also seated at a desk, a standard convention in portraits that attempt to point toward the professional work of the mind. He has on very worn shoes—which are in some ways the most revealing details in the whole portrait. These worn leather shoes seem to say a lot about how Higginson wanted to portray himself, or who he wanted to be.
Q Can you tell us more about Sargent’s other work at Harvard?
A Sargent is also connected to Harvard because of his Widener Murals, and Sargent’s landscape painting Lake O’Hara (1916) was the first work of art by a living artist that the Fogg Museum acquired, in 1916. It was very controversial at the time because the museum was still trying to sort out the place of contemporary art in the museum. The museums own quite a lot of Sargent’s works now.