Sargent was commissioned by the Art Association of Indianapolis, the forerunner of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to create this portrait of the Indiana author and poet James Whitcomb Riley.
Riley is posed in a contemplative manner, holding a book to suggest his profession as a writer. Sargent chose a limited dark palette as well as a plain background to convey the no-nonsense, down-to-earth personality of his subject.
Born in Florence, Italy, to American parents, Sargent traveled throughout Europe in his youth. Determined to become an artist, he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was acclaimed as one of the era’s most fashionable portraitists.
John Singer Sargent: Celebrity Portraitist
"Sargent was born and raised in Florence, Italy, by his expatriate American parents. He moved to Paris, where he studied under the famed portraitist Carolus-Duran and attended the École des Beaux Arts, in 1874. Exhibited at the 1879 Salon, Sargent’s portrait of Carolus-Duran made an impression on the public and attracted many patrons. Another work, Portrait of Madame X (1884), brought him even more attention due to its audacious display of the sitter’s décolletage. The artist’s final years were spent in London, but he made periodic visits to America for the purpose of carrying out portrait commissions. Sargent was the most fashionable portraitist in England and the United States because of his brilliant technique, which flattered his subjects.
James Whitcomb Riley’s portrait was commissioned by the Art Association of Indianapolis and paid for with funds raised at an 1898 benefit performance, in which the poet read his own works. Sargent charged only one-third his normal fee because he often agreed to paint celebrities at minimal cost simply for publicity. Sargent captures the Hoosier poet’s personality in this study. While the likeness was received with mixed reviews by Riley’s friends, the portrait has an engaging directness befitting the poet’s no-nonsense nature"