It turns out John Singer Sargent wasn’t the only talented artist in the family. For years, his sister Emily painted alongside him, producing a body of watercolor landscapes that had previously been seen by only a select few.
Although we see her at an easel in a few of John’s watercolors, the extent of Emily’s oeuvre was unknown until a family member discovered a trunk containing 440 of her watercolor paintings in 1998. Twenty-five years later, a number of those works have started turning up as gifts from the family at museums in both the U.S. and the U.K., mostly those that already had a Sargent connection, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Tate London; National Gallery of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Ashmolean at Oxford University; and the Sargent House Museum.
The Artist’s Background
Born in 1857, Emily suffered a spinal injury at four years old, which was exacerbated by a period of prolonged immobilization. Despite her lifelong frailty, she traveled extensively with her family when they lived overseas. At the insistence of their mother, all the Sargent children learned to paint, leading Emily to immortalize such diverse places as Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, Palestine, and Egypt in her work.
But the majority of Emily’s artistic output came after the death of her father when she was in her 30s and began traveling extensively with her brother on his European painting exhibitions. Characterized by bold brushstrokes and strong color and contrast, her paintings captured the unique atmosphere and qualities of the places she visited.
At a time when it was nearly unheard of for a woman to pursue a profession in painting, Emily likely never imagined exhibiting or selling her work. Indeed she showed it only once when she contributed a few Old Master copies to a group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1908.
Still, she stayed connected to the art world through her support of her brother. Neither John or Emily ever married, and the two remained close throughout their lives. She hosted parties for him, helped to promote his work, and sold it to collectors.
With the current rise in interest in overlooked women in art history, Emily is finally receiving critical consideration. Through May 7, 2023, the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester is hosting a small exhibition of Emily’s paintings, courtesy of loans from the Sargent House while it’s closed for the offseason. And that appears to be just the beginning. The Met is hoping to showcase Emily during a 2025 show about John’s time in Paris, and to work with the curators at the other museums that are the recipients of her work to develop scholarship about her previously unrecognized career.
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