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Educational Insights

Speaking of Pictures

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman) by John Singer Sargent

To a trained eye, almost every artwork contains clues that reveal a story. These details might relate to the composition—that is, why the artist constructed the piece in a particular way. An artist can also convey subtle meaning through symbols. Roll over various parts of the featured artwork to reveal interesting facts and background information. There are four different rollovers in this image.


John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), 1893, oil, 49 3/8 x 40 1/2 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chanler A. Chapman, 1980.71

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What an elegant woman. Her easy pose and rich surroundings suggest confidence and wealth, but her direct gaze implies she is not all aloof. Meet the sitter, Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler. What character traits do you see in her portrait?

John Singer Sargent painted Miss Chanler in his London studio in 1893, when she was twenty-six years old. The portrait offers many obvious pleasures, such as the sitter's engaging visage and lavish dress. Her fine jewelry and clothing tell us about her wealth, but there is more to the story.

Sargent hints at other aspects of her character through his clever inclusion of details and symbols. Can you find them by scrolling over the image? After you find and read the clues, reflect on your initial observation. Do the details confirm or contradict your first impressions of her?

To learn more about this painting, go to Director's Choice, where you can take a multimedia tour with museum director Elizabeth Broun. Then see our online exhibition The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its corresponding book and poster.


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