Fall Arts Preview: Haute Couture and John Singer Sargent at the MFA

The Museum of Fine Arts presents a fashion show as seen through the brushwork of a 19th-century great.

A John Singer Sargent fine-art painting of a 19th-century woman in a burgundy evening gown, sitting for a portrait.

Fashion and art come together in the MFA exhibition “Fashioned by Sargent.” / Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Long considered one of the 19th century’s greatest portraitists, John Singer Sargent was able to capture not just the faces of the men, women, and children he painted, but also their homes and wardrobes. In fact, many of his most elaborate paintings overflow with the folds and textures of the dresses and robes of his subjects. This focus on apparel in his work is the heart of the exhibition “Fashioned by Sargent,” open at the Museum of Fine Arts from October 8 through January 15, 2024. Organized in partnership with Tate Britain, the survey features some 50 paintings alongside clothing from the time period, including accessories such as fans and hats.

Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The idea for the exhibition came to Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings, when she was in Paris presenting a paper on Sargent’s portraits of men. “As I was preparing that paper, it became clear to me that it was the clothing that tells you how these gentlemen are presenting themselves or how Sargent chooses to see them,” Hirshler says. “It made me think about who was in control with these portraits, who decides what they wear, and what that says about [them].”

In fact, Hirshler learned, Sargent was in control of every portrait he produced, not the client, choosing and meticulously arranging each outfit to fit the image he saw in his head. “He was always thinking about picture-making,” Hirshler says. “It might be a choice of color or a way he edits [an] outfit, or how he drapes it and pins it, or leaves things out.”

Such artistic choices are indeed what make these portraits feel timeless and even contemporary to this day, which is why his often-wealthy clients yielded to his brilliant, if inflexible, ideas. After all, Hirshler says, “You didn’t go to Sargent if you wanted a visual record of your dress—you went to Sargent to get a Sargent.”