During Sargent’s 1903 visit to the United States, Isabella Stewart Gardner invited him to paint at Fenway Court, the Venetian-style palace she had recently built in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood to house her art collection. Sargent made several portraits in its elaborate Gothic Room, each one reminding the viewers of the friendship between artist and collector, as well as the relationship between the historical masterpieces of the collection and the art of Sargent and his contemporaries. Although Fenway Court had opened to the public in February 1903, the Gothic Room remained off-limits. The room, on the third floor with large windows overlooking the central courtyard, provided an evocative setting for Sargent’s portraits; it was dominated by the artist’s 1888 portrait of Mrs. Gardner and was richly decorated according to her unique sensibilities with paintings, furniture, fabrics, and architectural elements.
The Warrens’ sittings were recorded in a number of photographs (now in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). Sargent arranged Mrs. Warren and her daughter in grand Renaissance armchairs, and used an elaborate gilt candelabra and a fifteenth-century polychrome Madonna and Child as a backdrop. This sculpture inspired the unusual pose of mother and daughter: Rachel rests her head on her mother’s shoulder in imitation of the tender gesture of the Virgin and Child. The pose draws attention both to the influence of art of the past in Sargent’s work and to the intimate and informal familial relationship between the sitters. However, twelve-year-old Rachel seems to strain uncomfortably to fulfill this ideal of maternal affection; she gazes away from her mother with an abstracted expression that seems to exemplify a new stage of childhood that was gaining currency in scientific circles: adolescence.
adapted from Gillian Shallcross, The MFA Handbook: A Guide to the Collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, rev. ed. (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009)