Margarett Sargent 1892–1978

Portrait of a Young Woman

  • 20 1/8 x 25 inches (51.1 x 63.5 cm)
  • Oil on canvas
  • Signed upper right: Margarett Sargent
  • c. 1930

Why We Love It

Though Margarett Sargent’s artistic career was relatively short-lived due to societal pressures and her own personal challenges, she painted intensely for about ten years and produced numerous remarkable portraits such as this Portrait of a Young Woman. Stylistically, the painting bears the influence of Matisse, however the picture also has a raw emotional intensity and a vulnerability that is unique to Sargent’s work.

The Value

This strong, modern American painting offers any collector a wonderful opportunity to own a work by this talented and ostensibly forgotten American artist. Like so many of her female colleagues, Sargent’s creativity and artistic ingenuity have been under-recognized and undervalued, making her work an excellent value proposition. This painting in particular demonstrates the height of Sargent’s artistic power; it is an exceptional example of modern American painting worthy of a great collection.

Artist Background

While the Modernist art movement enabled many women artists to follow their artistic dreams more freely, the privileged Bostonian Margarett Sargent still seemed unable to escape the inevitable “conflict between art and female obligation in upper-class, old-family Boston.” As part of Boston’s elite, Sargent received a fine education. She spent a year in Italy where she fell in love with Donatello’s sculpture and began to talk about wanting to become an artist—her family later lamented “If only we hadn’t sent her to Europe.”  After her debutante ball, she became engaged briefly but broke it off. Sargent enrolled in private art lessons, first with Bashka Paeff and then with Gutzon Borglum, a dynamic figurative sculptor. Through Borglum, she met the painter George Luks who became her artistic mentor and introduced her to modern art.

Sargent’s pursuit of an artistic career was hampered by familial obligations. When her father passed away in 1920, she was expected to return home and look after her widowed mother. To avoid this responsibility, she married Shaw McKean, another wealthy Bostonian. Her husband accepted her artistic aspirations; however, marriage to him required even more social expectations and responsibilities. Nevertheless, her career continued successfully for some time; she had her first solo exhibition in 1926 at Kraushaar Galleries in New York City. The show was well reviewed and was followed by four more in 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1931. However, by this time, Sargent’s personal life had become more volatile and by 1936, she had stopped painting altogether. When later asked why she gave it up her career, she replied “It got too intense. For twenty years, I worked. And then I turned to horticulture.”

Sargent’s work could well be described as “intense”; her paintings, such as Portrait of a Young Woman, are bold and expressive and unlike the work of any other painter in Boston during this period. A contemporary critic for the Boston Evening Transcript remarked, “She is an out-and-out modernist in style as well as spirit.” Although her work bears the influence of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, it is also utterly unique. There is a raw emotional intensity and even a vulnerability to her portraits. In Portrait of a Young Woman the model leans forward casually with her arms on the back of a chair, however her gaze is directed off to the side, away from the viewer. The palette and brushwork are bold, almost aggressive: the strong black-and-white stripes of the model’s shirt and yellow necktie and the bright red rose on the table beside her are painted loosely, in an almost haphazard manner. As one critic aptly put it, “Her style is slap-dash, but…[her] line will betray a whole trend of emotion or indeed an entire personality with the lift of an eyelid.”