Hands are often called the second portrait and for good reason. It is not a surprise that an artist that values her hands above all body parts (except maybe our eyes) would notice others’ hands. The hands are a source of self-expression. We often refer to people who talk “with their hands.” Read on to learn why hands are the “second portrait.”
In the portraits of John Singer Sargent, he demonstrates his masterly skill of depicting the sitter’s personality through their hands. Take a look at the 12 examples in this article and see if you agree. All these portraits are included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Sargent Portraits of Artists and Friends” which brings together ninety-two of the artist’s paintings and drawings of members of his impressive artistic circle. The show is open through October 4th, 2015.
Above: The Hands of Dr. Pozzi
In the portrait above, a man poses in a red house robe. We come to learn that this is the portrait of Dr. Pozzi, a famed nineteenth century gynecologist. You have to appreciate the artist’s sense of humor showing such a doctor posed nearly, but not quite, naked in his bathrobe. Like the patients he serves, he casually holds the sides of his robe together with his long elegant surgeon hands. Another hand is draped playfully over the belt loops as if the robe were about to open. It is a very sexy and improper portrait of a doctor who tends to a woman’s intimate medical needs.
1. detail of Isabella Stewart Gardner. This important American collector played a big part in the career of Sargent. Notice the way her arms are posed as a ballerina with her white patrician hands clasped at the bottom to mirror the pearl necklace she wears at her neck and waistline. The portrait was meant to mimic the daring style of Madame X
2. detail of Asher Wertheimer, leading art dealer in London. The hand perfectly characterizes the cigar chomping high flying Jewish business man.
3. detail from portrait of Jacques-Emile Blanche. Sargent gave careful attention to Blanche’s attenuated fingers. Sargent bartered this portrait in exchange for some Louis XV style furniture from the sitter, a well known Parisian artist.
4. detail of Charles-Émile-Auguste Durand, the highly influential portrait teacher who taught Sargent. This portrait plays homage to his teacher’s style and one can’t help but notice the ruffled cuffs, the walking cane as signals of artistic eccentricity.
5. detail from portrait of Italian artist Antonio Mancini. This is yet another artist friend of Sargent. One thing to take note in this exhibition is the sheer number of artists that Sargent befriended. In fact, you will note throughout history our best beloved artists all surrounded themselves with other artists. This brings to mind the quote that you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. In other words, if you want to be a successful artist, surround yourself with other successful artists. Although this sketch was produced in just an hour, Sargent felt it important to include one of his sitter’s hands.
6. detail from Portrait of a Boy. This portrait was another trade the artist did with yet another artist friend. The relaxed hands mimic the bored expression of the child
7. detail from La Carmencita Dancing. Notice how he accentuates the famed dancer’s hands. In this full length portrait, the feet are hidden from view. This dancer caused quite a stir in her time, not unlike Elvis in the 1950’s, as her dancing was considered risque.
8. detail of Mary Louisa Cushing Boit. Her husband was a well known watercolor painter but you might be better familiar with the famous portrait of her daughters that hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts “The Children of Edward Darley Boit.”
This portrait was considered vulgar because of the polka dot dress– yes, scandalous, I know. Notice the sitter’s double chin and teeth baring smile in the full view at right…oh, my. But you can see all this expression in her hands which aren’t even properly folded but fingers are a tangle of bohemian lust for life.
9. detail of American actor Joseph Jefferson portraying a character
10. detail from portrait of the Pailleron children.. You can read more about the effeminate hands of the brother in this double portrait in the blog post: Learning from the Masters: The Psychological Portraits of John Singer Sargent
11. detail of Madame Ramón Subercaseaux
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About me, Miriam Schulman
In case we haven’t met yet, I’m an artist and founder of The Inspiration Place, where I help other artists learn how to profit from their passion. Through online classes, business coaching programs, and a top-ranked podcast, I’ve helped thousands of artists around the world develop their skill sets and create more time and freedom to do what they love. My signature coaching program, The Artist Incubator, helps artists go from so-so sales to sold-out collections.
After witnessing 9/11, I abandoned a lucrative hedge fund job to work on my art full time. Since then, my art and story have been featured in major publications including Forbes, What Women Create, The New York Times, Art of Man, Art Journaling magazine as well as featured on NBC’s “Parenthood” and the Amazon series “Hunters” with Al Pacino. Check out my best-selling book with HarperCollins Leadership, Artpreneur, how to make money from your creativity, wherever books are sold. When I’m not in the studio, I split my time between New York City and a farmhouse in the country. I’d love to invite you to check out one of my free resources for art lovers (of every passion level) at schulmanart.com/freebies