The Tragedienne With No Time to Spare
There’s a reason this portrait of Eleonora Duse (known as “La Dusa”) looks unfinished. After Sargent finally convinced her to sit for a portrait, La Dusa, famously a rival of Sarah Bernhardt, got bored after 55 minutes. According to the catalog, Sargent related that she stood up and said, “I wish you a thousand years of life, glory, and many children, but now goodbye,” and then walked out, never to return.
...focus instead on how Sargent captured, often in radically different ways, something of each soul that sat before him. For instance, there is the portrait of actor Eleonora Duse that Sargent managed to paint in a sitting of less than an hour. It ended abruptly when Ms. Duse decided she could sit no longer. The paint is gossamer thin, the brushwork provisional, yet the image of a supremely confident woman dares the viewer to meet her gaze, revealing her substantial self-regard with the barest of means. It is as intense a rendering of a subject’s personality as a typical Lucien Freud portrait is intense in its rendering of Freud’s struggle with the medium. I do not mean the comparison as a pejorative, but as indicating the range painting can stretch to when put to its maximum flexibility.