The Lost Sargents: ‘Recovering’ the Destroyed Portraits of Mr. And Mrs. James Lawrence

In 1881, the American artist John Singer Sargent painted dual portraits of husband and wife, James and Caroline Estelle Mudge Lawrence.

Much to many people’s everlasting grief, however, in 1939, both paintings were destroyed in a fire in Aunt Libby’s [Elizabeth Prescott Lawrence Emmons’] apartment.

For most of my life, it was my understanding that any substantive idea of what those paintings might have looked like had been lost, along with the originals, in the flames.

Over the last year, though, I have found two photographic reproductions of Estelle’s portrait, and one of James’  portrait. After some truly sparing and minimalist work in Photoshop, I offer them both below.

The best image of Estelle’s portrait came from a .pdf of an old Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog which had featured the painting: Memorial Exhibition of the Work of John Singer Sargent (January 4 through February 14, 1926). You can see a copy of it here; scroll to Plate 6.

The background, by the way, was described by contemporary viewers as being a brilliant red. Looking at the monotone image below, I can almost see the cadmium in my mind’s eye.

 

plate_6-post-2

John Singer Sargent
Mrs James Lawrence
1881
61 x 45.7 cm
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated upper right: John S. Sargent 1881
Destroyed by fire at Hingham, Massachusetts, c. 1939

 

The image of James’ portrait came from a photograph taken by Estelle herself. It was easily discernible on the far wall in an interior shot of the Lawrence Homestead at Groton.

 

james-lawrence-by-john-singer-sargent-destroyed-in-aunt-lizzies-apt-fire-1-9-in-w

John Singer Sargent
Mr James Lawrence
Exact dimensions unknown
c. 1881
Oil on canvas
Destroyed by fire at Hingham, Massachusetts, c. 1939

 

 

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