May 2011 Articles

Treasures: M. Carey Thomas & John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent regarded his portrait of M. Carey Thomas as one of the finest he ever painted. It is undoubtedly the College’s most significant work of art, but it is also much more than that. In capturing the determination and vision of Bryn Mawr’s second president, Sargent also created an emblem for the College and its promise of rigorous education for women.

What is striking about the Sargent portrait is that Thomas is looking straight at the viewer—a typical pose for a man, but atypical for a woman at the time. As well, her dark academic robes present a figure unfettered by the setting, lapdogs or frilly costumes. Her presentation is in the tradition of the academic portrait, where the somber male model prevailed.

The portrait was commissioned by the Portrait Committee of Alumnae and Students at the College in 1898. At that time Thomas was 41, in her fourth year as president, and 14th year as the chief academic officer of Bryn Mawr, having been appointed dean a year before the school’s opening in 1885. Accompanied by her friend Mary Garrett, Thomas sat for the internationally sought-after painter for six days in London in late July of 1899. Sargent himself supervised the portrait’s framing, paid for by Garrett.

Thomas was proud of the painting, as she wrote in a letter to Garrett. The letter suggests that Sargent was commissioned in the end because of his social cachet. There is the possibility that Thomas did not choose a woman painter because she measured herself, and Bryn Mawr, in terms of male educational accomplishments.

The superstar of painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sargent made his fortune and reputation as a portraitist of beautiful women and influential men. Sargent’s portrait of Thomas traveled to major exhibitions of the artist’s work. In 1990, it was included in the American art installation of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, where it was chosen to embody “the most organized type of new woman of the New World, both highly educated and independent” and was awarded the Grand Prix.