Carter museum acquires monumental John Singer Sargent painting

Posted Friday, Sep. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has acquired a monumental portrait by John Singer Sargent of Edwin Booth, the renowned 19th-century actor and brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

The 71/2-foot-tall painting, completed in 1890, is the first life-size portrait to enter the Carter’s collection, and the second Sargent, joining the lovely Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1888).

The portrait of Booth, painted three years before his death, is a “widely known but rarely seen painting,” Carter Director Andrew Walker said.

For more than 100 years, it hung above the fireplace in the Sargent Room at The Players, a club established by Booth in New York City. In 2002, to pay debts and generate funds for a facade refurbishment, the club sold the painting to New York collector and gallerist Warren Adelson.

The Carter bought it from Adelson for an estimated $4 million to $6 million. That would be an extremely good deal: Sargent portraits of 19th-century notables have sold for up to $15 million in recent years.

This painting, however, is quite large — more than 90 inches tall with the frame — so it was hard to place, and because it is of a famous American with infamous connections, it deserved to hang in an American art museum, Walker said.

The club’s board of directors commissioned the painting to acknowledge Booth’s contributions to American theater. In 1888, Booth gave his town house to establish a club for actors, writers and artists in the hope of elevating the public’s perception of them to the same level as other professionals.

Sargent captured the drama and the man. It was “just what his patrons requested — a picture for posterity to be admired by present and future generations,” said Margi Conrads, the Carter’s deputy director of art and research.

Sargent completed the painting in 1890, and Booth died three years later at age 59. In Sargent’s depiction, Booth’s eyes are red-rimmed, and he looks quite haggard. He had already had one stroke and was unsteady on his feet.

After his younger brother, also an actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Booth, who never shared his brother’s politics, laid low for a short while and then began traveling the country, taking Shakespeare to the hinterlands.

In 1887, he visited Dallas and performed Hamlet, his signature role. In any major city, he stayed long enough to perform on successive nights — Iago in Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, and on Saturdays, Hamlet for the matinee and Othello for the evening performance. Then he would pack up and move on to the next city. He is often credited with awakening Americans to the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays. But the nonstop touring took a physical toll.

In this portrait, Booth is standing in front of the club’s large central hall fireplace. He looks tall and slender, which he wasn’t; Booth was rather stocky at 5-foot-7. This was something Sargent often did with his sitters — performing Photoshop kindnesses for those he liked and subtle cruelties for those he didn’t.

The spare setting with a dying fire, the handwritten subscription that Booth appropriated from Shakespeare’s epitaph and then tweaked, and the decorative corbel, a nod to Stanford White, the architect who designed the club’s interiors, are all rich with significance.

“Everything is there for a reason,” said Rebecca Lawton, the Carter’s curator of painting and sculpture.

Edwin Booth goes on display today in the foyer of the Carter on the wall opposite Frederic Remington’s Dash for the Timber.

Admission to the Carter is free.

Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113 Twitter: @GaileRobinson

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