Happy birthday, Sargent!

John Singer Sargent, the great recorder of belle époque society, was born on this day in 1856.  In honor of his 160th birthday (and also the Dixon’s fortieth anniversary), I am happy to write a post about my favorite painting in the Dixon’s collection, Sargent’s Ramón Subercaseaux in a Gondola from 1880.    

In the Spring of 1880, young Chilean expatriates Amalia and Ramón Subercaseaux were in Paris attending the city’s annual Salon, where they were captivated by Sargent’s submissions that year.  They immediately arranged a visit to the American artist’s studio, beginning a lifelong friendship that would lead to several extraordinary works of art.   

In the fall of that year, Sargent met the Subercaseaux in Venice, and there, Sargent and Ramón (himself an amateur painter) shared a studio in the storied Palazzo Rezzonico.  Over the course of a couple of months, the two worked steadily and earnestly, soaking up all of the inspiration Venice had to offer.  Both artists painted the city’s unique canals and native citizens, but perhaps the most interesting work to come out of their time there is Ramón Subercaseaux in a Gondola, a brilliant portrait not only of the Chilean diplomat, but also of the city of Venice itself.    

Subercaseaux appears dignified and intent as he glances just slightly upward to Sargent, his subject, whom he paints using the travel watercolor set he holds in his hand.  Floating lazily along a canal, the sights, sounds, and even smells of Venice sparkle around them, further enhanced by Sargent’s uncanny ability to capture the essence of a place in paint.  The water in the canal appears almost liquid to the touch, as convincing as the stucco surface of the buildings on the painting’s periphery and the light filtering through the canvas canopy on the gondola.   

Rarely in Sargent’s oeuvre are the tables turned on him, where he is simultaneously both artist and subject, making this work incredibly special.  Though Subercaseaux’s watercolor portrait of Sargent was once known to exist, its whereabouts are currently unknown.  Rest assured, however, that I am ever on the hunt to find it, and if I do, I hope to reunite the two works of art for their own tête-à-tête.      

Details not to be missed:

  • The quick yet skillful sketch of the gondoliers in the background. 
  • The speck of white paint on Subercaseaux’s hand making his wedding ring.  I don’t know why but I’ve always loved that.   
This painting is currently on view in the living room of the Dixon residence as part of the exhibition Painting American Progress.  Come see it in person; you will love it just as much as I do.   


-Julie Pierotti, Dixon Curator

Image caption: John Singer Sargent, Ramón Subercaseaux in a Gondola, 1880; Oil on canvas; Collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens; Gift of Cornelia Ritchie, 1996.2.13

Posted by Chantal Drake at 2:06 PM
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