Financier, politician, and philanthropist Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1834–1915) made his fortune through multiple entrepreneurial enterprises, including investments in trolley cars and public transit systems in his native Philadelphia and elsewhere. An avid art collector, Widener filled Lynnewood Hall, his mansion just outside Philadelphia, with European paintings, oriental carpets, and Chinese porcelain. In 1942, this portrait, along with other items in Widener’s collection, was given to the National Gallery of Art by his son Joseph (1872–1943).
Shown in a three-quarter view, Widener stands beside a paneled wooden door, his left hand resting on the doorknob and his body and gaze turned to the right. The painting’s dramatic lighting casts much of Widener’s face in shadow, resulting in a striking chiaroscuro effect reminiscent of the Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings Widener admired. In fact, this painting hung over the mantelpiece in the Van Dyck room at Lynnewood Hall, where Widener’s celebrated collection of Van Dyck portraits also hung. Edith Appleton Standon, curator of the elder Widener’s collection, later recalled Joseph Widener remarking that Sargent “had not wanted his picture to be in such company but that [Peter Widener] considered that it held its own very well.” After completing this portrait in London in 1902, Sargent went on to paint Widener again the following year at Lynnewood Hall–a painting now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/American%20Paintings%20of%20the%20Nineteenth%20Century%20Part%20II.pdf
upper right: John S. Sargent 1902
The sitter; inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.
- Seventy-second Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1903, no. 26.
- Possibly Loan Exhibition of Portraits, Art Institute of Chicago, 1905, no. 112.
- McKibbin, David. Sargent's Boston. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1956: 131.
- Mount, Charles Merrill. John Singer Sargent: A Biography. Rev. ed. (originally published 1955). New York, 1969: 456.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 96, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 220, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 145, 146.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 190, 192, color repros.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 332, repro.
- Ormond, Richard, and Elaine Kilmurray. John Singer Sargent: The Later Portraits. The Complete Paintings, Volume III. New Haven and London, 2003: no. 429, repro.
- Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 117-120, color repro.