Nearly two years ago during the chill of winter, upon Niki‘s suggestion, I stopped by the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago one night to view John Singer Sargent’s painting “Mrs. George Swinton.” At 7.5 feet tall and surrounded by a hefty gilded frame, it is nearly life-sized and retains a commanding presence on the end wall of a long gallery. Upon my first glance, I felt a palpable upwelling of excitement and immediately drew in closer to examine its luminosity, lush details, and painterly quality. Mesmerized, I took a picture of the painting with my phone and texted Niki the with a resounding “Yes! We have to do it.” Shortly thereafter, I started drafting patterns and sewing muslin.
About six months later while celebrating my 40th birthday on a solo trip to Paris, I stopped in a fabric store near the foot of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Much like the luminosity of the Sargent painting, the sheen of silk shantung beamed toward me from the wall. Having managed with my rudimentary French skills, I walked out with seven yards of fabric. Upon my return home, the fabric took on a new life that filled me with the same giddiness as my first experience standing in front of the painting.
As we are often prone to doing, we gave the painting/project a nickname. It typically serves as shorthand and also tends to endear us more toward the subject of the painting. Besides, “Portrait of Mrs George Swinton” doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, so we opted for Tilda after the actress Tilda Swinton. What I didn’t know, until doing my usual research on the painting, was that Mrs. George Swinton turned out to be the great-grandmother of the actress for whom we nicknamed the project. In fact, as I dug further, I learned that the painting was commissioned by George Swinton’s mother to honor her Scottish politician son’s engagement to socialite and professional singer Elizabeth Ebsworth. It has been noted that the painting took two years to complete because of Sargent’s insistence upon taking breaks to play the piano while Elizabeth would sing. Regardless of timing, Sargent’s skill is not only evidenced through the many lush details present within the painting, he seems to effortlessly capture his subject’s signature poise and beauty—a major reason in our choice to reinterpret the piece.
When I went back to revisit the painting, I began to notice distinct elements of Impressionism in how Sargent rendered the translucent folds of the organza cascading down her arm. Up close, the brush strokes look like abstract squiggles of paint, yet at a distance, a luxurious pouf of iridescent fabric appears. Again, upon further research, I discovered that the portraiture for which he is most well-known composed the majority of his commissioned work. Yet he regularly employed Impressionist techniques in his informal work and landscape paintings. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, the portrait of Mrs. George Swinton marries the two approaches with a seamless grace and adeptness.
It likely goes without saying that we are enamored by this painting and much of Sargent’s work. We are excited for the opportunity to hang this piece next to our reinterpretation of A Portrait of Madame X, one of Sargent’s most well-known works. There’s also an element of delight in little secrets that Niki and I share in the process (like the fact that I’m standing on top of two art history books instead of wearing heels in the photo). But those are for telling another time. For now, below is our latest addition to the Muse series. We can only hope our gender-bending reinterpretation would bring honor to the original painting’s creator and subject.