Léon Delafosse

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Léon Delafosse

ca. 1895 - 98

John Singer Sargent

Born Florence, Italy, 1856; died London, England, 1925

We might imagine that this portrait, nearly life size and quite formal in its appearance, was a commission for a public place. Sargent, one of the most talented and celebrated portraitists of the late nineteenth century in England, Europe and America, is best known for his society portraits done on commission for the grand ladies and gentlemen who wished to proclaim publicly by such elaborate productions their wealth, sophistication and elegance. But this portrait of Léon Delafosse was not a commission from the young French composer and pianistit was, rather, Sargent's gift to him as a token of friendship and admiration. It is inscribed, in French, "to M. Léon Delafosse in fond remembrance." Sargent and Delafosse were brought together not as painter and patron but as fellow pianists. Though music is nowhere evident in the painting, it was an essential part of the inspiration for this work. Let's explore the circumstances in the lives of painter John Singer Sargent and Leon Delafosse that led to the painting of this portrait.
Oil on canvas
39 3/4 x 23 3/8 in. (101 x 59.4 cm)
Given in honor of Trevor Fairbrother by Mr. and Mrs. Prentice Bloedel by exchange, and by Robert M. Arnold, Tom and Ann Barwick, Frank Bayley, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Contemporary Art Council, Council of American Art, Jane and David R. Davis, Decorative Arts and Paintings Council, Robert B. Dootson, Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, P. Raaze Garrison, Lyn and Gerald Grinstein, Helen and Max Gurvich, Marshall Hatch, John and Ann Hauberg, Richard and Betty Hedreen, Mary Ann and Henry James, Mrs. Janet W. Ketcham, Allan and Mary Kollar, Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, Rufus and Pat Lumry, Byron R. Meyer, Ruth J. Nutt, Scotty Ray, Gladys and Sam Rubinstein, Mr. and Mrs. Allen Vance Salsbury, Herman and Faye Sarkowsky, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Scheumann, Seattle Art Museum Supporters, Jon and Mary Shirley, Joan and Harry Stonecipher, Dean and Mary Thornton, William and Ruth True, Volunteers Association, Ms. Susan Winokur and Mr. Paul Leach, The Virginia Wright Fund, Charlie and Barbara Wright, Howard Wright and Kate Janeway, Merrill Wright, and Mrs. T. Evans Wyckoff
Provenance: The sitter (1874-1955), probably to his death, 1955; subsequent history uncertain, but probably by descent through the artist's family; to [Galerie Schmit, Paris, 1989-2001]; purchased by Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 2001
Photo: Elizabeth Mann
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

I am sure you will enjoy his playing and his French finesse.

John Singer Sargent, to Isabella Stewart Gardiner in Boston, on Léon Delafosse, 1899

The Painter as Pianist

"Do make him play for you," Sargent wrote of Delafosse in a letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, his dearest friend in Boston and a great patroness of the arts. "I am sure you will have the greatest pleasure in his wonderful talent, both as a composer and a virtuoso." "He is the only man who has taken the trouble to study certain difficult and beautiful piano compositions by [Gabriel] Fauré," Sargent explained to Mrs. Gardner on another occasion. This was perhaps the true source of the painter's affection for Delafosse, for Sargent loved Fauré's sprightly piano impressions. Sargent was a gifted pianist himself. According to composer Percy Grainger, "To hear Sargent play the piano was a treat, for his pianism had the manliness and richness of his painting. . . . He delighted especially in playing his favorite, Fauré." But Grainger also tells us that Sargent's paternalistic support of young musicians was perhaps his greatest contribution to music: "Music seemed to be less a recreation to him than a sacred duty, the duty of aiding especial musical talent wherever he found it." Sargent, Grainger tells us, "had been the apostle of Gabriel Fauré in England, bringing over that great composer to London for public and private performances of his compositions, arranging performances of Fauré's work by the Cappe Quartet, Léon Delafosse, and other exquisite artists and the like."
Detail of pianist's hand, 2001.17
Photo: Susan Cole

The Charm of Léon Delafosse

Of course Delafosse is a decadent especially in the matter of neck-ties-but he is a very intelligent little Frenchman, and a composer and excellent pianist, who is probably going over to America in a year's time, so I sent his portrait over as a forerunner.

—John Singer Sargent, to Isabella Stewart Gardner, on Léon Delafosse, 1899

Sargent, in a letter to Isabella Stewart Gardiner, revealed something of his purpose in painting the young Léon Delafosse. The charming young pianist—he had won first prize at the Paris Conservatory of Music when only thirteen—was known for his delicate beauty. Nicknamed "the Angel," Delafosse must have been a captivating portrait subject by his physical characteristics alone. But Sargent was equally charmed by Delafosse's musical ability—particularly his mastery of the modern piano pieces of Sargent's favorite composer, the Frenchman Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). At a time when live performance offered the only opportunity for one to hear music, Delafosse was a favorite attraction at the private salons of the most elite patrons of music in both Paris and London. Sargent was eager to introduce Delafosse to his American friends, and he sent this portrait for public exhibition in Boston in advance of the pianist's planned concert tour to American cities. The painter did so to do his part to garner attention for this young man of extraordinary talent—note the stress that Sargent has placed on his subject's long pianist's fingers.
Detail of Léon Delafosse, 2001.17
Photo: Susan Cole


Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, describes Sargent's painting of Leon Delafosse
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, on Sargent's depiction of the pianist's hand
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, on the intimate nature of this painting


Exhibition HistoryBoston, Massachusetts, Copley Hall, Paintings and Sketches by John S. Sargent, Feb. 20 - Mar.13, 1899. Cat. no. 7, p. 2.

Paris, France, Salon du Champs de Mars, Société nationale des beaux-arts, May 1902. Cat. no. 1044.

Berlin, Germany, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, 1903. Cat. no. 790.

Brussels, Belgium, Le Salon, 1904. Cat. no. 134, reproduced.

London, England, Royal Academy, The One Hundred and Thirty-seventh Exhibition, May 1 - Aug. 7, 1905. Cat. no. 553.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, Dec.14, 2000 - Mar.18, 2001.Text by Trevor Fairbrother. No cat. no., pp. 161, 164, reproduced p. 162, figure 6.7.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Portrait Collaborations: 19th-Century Works from the Permanent Collection, May 31, 2001 - Jan. 1, 2002. No catalogue.

New York, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, June 29 - Oct. 4, 2015. Text by Richard Ormond with Elain Kilmurray et al. Cat. no. 54, p. 154., reproduced p. 155. [Exhbition organized by National Portrait Gallery, London, Feb. 12 - May 25, 2015; Leon Delafosse only shown at Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, American Art: The Stories We Carry, Oct. 20, 2022 - ongoing.
Published References"The Sargent Exhibition at Copley Hall. Boston." Artist 24 (March 1899): p. xlvi.

"The Sargent Portrait Show." Sun XLVI (February 21, 1899): p. 6.

Baldry, Lys. "The Art of J.S. Sargent, R.A.: Part I." International Studio 10 (March 1900): p. 6, reproduced.

Frantz, Henri. "The Salons of 1902. La Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts." Magazine of Art 26 (1902): p. 447.

Meynell, Alice Christina. The Work of John S. Sargent, R.A. London: W. Heinemann, Ltd.; New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1903; n.p., reproduced.

Heilbut, Emil. "Die Ausstellung am Lehrter Bahnhof." Kunst and Kunstler I (1902/03): p. 391.

Carter, A.C.R. "The Royal Academy." Art Journal (1905): pp. 166-167.

"The Royal Academy-I." Graphic (April 29, 1905): p. 494.

H.S. "Art. The Academy-I." Spectator (May 6, 1905): p. 673.

"The Royal Academy. (First Article.)." The Times (April 29, 1905): p. 14.

Downes, William Howe. John S. Sargent: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1925; p. 174.

Downes, William Howe. John S. Sargent: His Life and Work. With an Exhaustive Catalogue of his Works. London: Thornton, Butterworth 1926; p. 174.

Charteris, Evan. John Sargent. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1927; pp. 175, 267.

The Work of John S. Sargent, R.A. Introduction by J. B. Manson and A. C. Meynell. London: W. Heinemann, Ltd.; New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1927; n.p., reproduced

Mount, Charles Merrill. John Singer Sargent: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,1955; p. 434, no. 9412.

A Centennial Exhibition: Sargent's Boston. Checklist by David McKibbin. Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1956; p. 92.

Mount, Charles Merrill. John Singer Sargent: A Biography. London: The Cresset Press, 1957; p. 343, no. 9412.

Mount, Charles Merrill. John Singer Sargent: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969; p. 436, no. 9412.

Tadié, Jean-Yves. Marcel Proust: A Life. Translated by Euan Cameron. New York: Viking, 2000; p. 181, note.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray. John Singer Sargent. Complete Paintings, Volume II: Portraits of the 1890s. New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, 2002; no. 322, pp. 105-106, 184, reproduced p. 105.

Hansen, Dorothee. "The 'Main Field of American Artists': The Reception of American Portraits in Germany." In High Society: American Portraits in the Gilded Age, edited by Barbara Dayer Gallati, pp. 54, 65, n. 50, reproduced p. 57, fig. 11. Munich: Hiermer Verlag for the Bucerius Kunst Forum, 2008.

Syme, Alison. A Touch of Blossom. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010; pp. 78, 254, n. 47, reprodced fig. 62.

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place: American Art and the Seattle Art Museum." The Magazine Antiques (Novemebr 2008), p. 113, reproduced p. 112, fig. 6.

Redford, Bruce. John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016; pp. 176-177, reproduced fig. 117.

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