While watching one of those delightful Masterpiece Mysteries on Christmas Eve—it was Hercule Poirot in an episode from 1995 titled “Poirot’s Christmas”, with the inimitable David Suchet, I noticed that a portrait of the (soon to be dead) wealthy old man who had hired Poirot looked rather familiar. I paused the show and captured this shot (on right) with my camera.
I ran to my bookshelves to get a book of Sargent portraits by Elizabeth Prettejohn, written as the exhibition book for one of the most magnificent exhibits of Sargent paintings in the last fifty years—I saw it at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1998. Turning the pages quickly, I found the portrait I’d been reminded of in the Poirot mystery: Lord Ribbesdale. Though not a full-length portrait, the painting used in the mystery story was undoubtedly painted with Sargent’s portrait in mind – the stance, the draped coat, even the flattened pilaster in the background mimicked the original very well. What fun to see it on TV!
Prettejohn’s description of the Lord Ribbesdale portrait is fascinating, as she sets forth the hypothesis that while Sargent chose the traditional stance of an Englishman’s portrait, his use of hunting clothing instead of military dress—including substituting the sword with a riding crop—is a strong indication of the dramatic changes undergone by British aristocracy, who no longer held the power and sway of their forebears, but rather seemed mostly representative of the new “leisure class” whose main activity was elite sports, like fox hunting and horse racing. Sargent always insisted that he didn’t “psychologize” his sitters and only painted what was before his eyes, but we know that he spent a good deal of time choosing exactly what his sitters would wear, and arranging the background to suit his perception of a portrait. Hard to believe he wasn’t arranging a little social commentary!