When confronted with official rather than society sitters, Sargent resorted to forthright poses and somber tones. Details are subordinated to the tall, dark, not quite frontal column of the figure, and Bayard’s pose is simple, a slight contrapposto lending it a supple, unforced natural dignity. One hand is suppressed, the other nearly so. Like a Gilbert Stuart portrait, this Sargent is first and foremost a depiction of a head. It derives much of its force from the strong modeling of the skull—the eye sockets, mouth, and left ear. The eyes shining through shadow are memorable. The lower background is painted in loaded dark brushstrokes, while the upper is in lighter browns and others with red accents. The upper background is also extremely varied in direction and type of brushstroke, especially near the head where the surface seems in constant movement. The painterly vitality of this area suggests the sitter’s mental vigor and vitality of character.
Sargent differentiates the parts and planes of the costume subtly and swiftly, with a range of grays on blacks (note especially the long right lapel of the greatcoat) that recalls one of his heroes among painters, Frans Hals. The great display of black is reminiscent of his older fellow expatriate, James A. M. Whistler, but Sargent’s mannerisms are those of the accomplished society portraitist, not the artist-aesthete. Unlike Whistler, Sargent always aimed to please his sitters.
Thomas Francis Bayard (1828–1898), born of a distinguished Wilmington family, practiced law in Delaware and Philadelphia, served as the United States District Attorney for Delaware from 1853 to 1854, and completed three terms as a Democratic Senator from that state (1869 – 1885).1He was the fifth member of his family to serve in the Senate. His son and namesake became the sixth, probably an unmatched record. Although he was unsuccessful in three attempts to gain his party’s presidential nomination, he became Secretary of State in Grover Cleveland’s first administration (1885–1889). Considered a strong Secretary, Bayard had to work with an uncongenial Congress, which was often irritated by the tactless President. Bayard worked to assert American interests in Hawaii, but was limited by Cleveland’s adamant opposition to annexation. He engineered a fisheries treaty with Canada, which the Senate rejected five months after his departure from the Cabinet in 1889.2Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Thomas F. Bayard;” and Secretaries of State 1978, 63.
That year, three years after the death of his first wife, Louise Lee, Bayard married Mary W. Clymer and resumed his law practice in Wilmington. When Cleveland returned to the White House in 1893, he appointed Bayard Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The appointment marked the first time a United States representative to Great Britain held the rank of ambassador.
It was probably during Bayard’s tenure in London (1893–1897) that Sargent painted this commanding three-quarter-length portrait. Although the date at the top is unclear, it has been interpreted as 1897, which would mean that the portrait and Bayard’s embassy were completed at about the same time. The inscription, “offered to Mrs. Bayard,” is also puzzling. The most probable explanation is that the portrait was not delivered until after Bayard’s death, on September 28, 1898, and the inscription was added in tribute to the memory of Bayard.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.
Thomas Francis Bayard (1828–1898) was born in Wilmington, Delaware. He studied law and practiced in Delaware. He represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate from 1869 to 1885, when President Grover Cleveland appointed him secretary of state.
As secretary, Bayard appointed diplomats known for their skill and expertise rather than their political loyalty. He attempted to settle disputes over fishing rights and the hunting of fur seals with Canada, Newfoundland, and Britain, but the issue would not be solved until 1903. With a focus on Pacific affairs, in 1887 Bayard oversaw the Senate’s ratification of the renewal of a reciprocity treaty with Hawaii. That same year he hosted a conference to de-escalate tensions among Germany, Great Britain, and the United States over Samoa. In 1889 Bayard signed an agreement with Japan that provided for the gradual abolition of special protections for American traders living in Japan. Despite the recent U.S. treaty with Korea, Bayard declined to interfere with British occupation of islands off that nation’s coast.
After his tenure as secretary of state, Bayard served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom until 1897.