An artist’s impression of life at Vizcaya in 1917

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of James Deering, 1917.
Reproduction of watercolor; original in Private Collection.

John Singer Sargent and the Deering brothers

Prominent American artist John Singer Sargent came to Miami in 1917 to visit his old friend Charles Deering, James Deering’s half-brother. During this time, Sargent was also a houseguest at Vizcaya and created a watercolor portrait of James.

en plein aire

Influenced by French impressionist artists, Sargent took up painting “en plein air,” or in the open air. At Vizcaya, Sargent produced watercolors that captured vistas of the estate along with rare moments and a glimpse of staff at leisure that provide a unique record of life at Vizcaya. Several of these pieces are now in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“… to be cherished through the generations…”

In her memoir, Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America, Althea McDowell Altemus, Deering’s private secretary, recalls, “For a long time Sargent worked on this portrait and it was intended to be cherished through the generations.” Altemus recalls that the portrait was intended for the door in the Espagnolette Bedroom that leads into Deering’s balcony, and from there to his bedroom and private sitting room.

Upon its completion, Deering asked, “Well, how do you like it?” Altemus was frank in reply, “I don’t like it – you look too stern.” She reports she never saw the portrait again.

Artist, architect draws the painter

Phineas E. Paist, who worked with Vizcaya’s Artistic Director Paul Chalfin, captured Sargent as he painted Deering in the East Loggia.