A Musical Portrait
Estate History 05/05/15
Written By Joanne O'Sullivan
Among the most eye-catching elements of the Oak Sitting Room are two John Singer Sargent portraits, each with a distinctly different feel. The demure woman in a silk gown is Mrs. Benjamin Kissam, George Vanderbilt’s aunt. The lively woman dressed in a Spanish mantilla and flouncey dress is one of George Vanderbilt’s favorite cousins, Virginia Purdy Barker, otherwise known as Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon.
Virginia, whose nickname was Jenny, was born in 1853 and spent much of her youth in Bordeaux, France. She and her brother Clarence were George’s frequent travel companions and the three shared a love of music. While Clarence died not long after Biltmore House opened, Virginia, George, and their friends enjoyed happy times in the home as evidenced by photos taken during this time.
John Singer Sargent had painted family portraits for the Vanderbilts since around 1888 when he completed a portrait of Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, George’s mother, which is displayed in the Tapestry Gallery along with Sargent’s 1890 portrait of George Vanderbilt. In 1895, Sargent painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate’s landscape architect; both of these works can be seen in the Second Floor Living Hall.
It was also in 1895 that Sargent first discussed painting a portrait of Mrs. Bacon; however, he was delayed in starting it, as he wrote George Vanderbilt for “want of success in finding a fine old frame for it.” He was concerned that frame needed to be comparable to those used in the portraits of Olmsted and Hunt. In the end, he opted to have a frame made.
The portrait was finally painted in 1896 and although Sargent wrote that Mrs. Bacon would have liked for it to have been displayed in New York before shipping to Asheville, there wasn’t enough time. The portrait arrived at Biltmore in December 1896.
Curator of Interpretation Leslie Klinger says that the portrait of Mrs. Bacon is reminiscent of Sargent’s early work and reflects his love of Spanish music and dance. In addition to being one of the foremost portrait painters of his time, Sargent was also an accomplished pianist.
Leslie speculates that perhaps the musical connection between artist and subject inspired this portrait. Sargent’s choices “make you realize what a fun person she must have been,” says Leslie. “You can understand why she was one of George’s favorite cousins.”
Mrs. Bacon’s portrait is a reminder of the role music has played in the life of Biltmore—a tradition that continues with the Biltmore Concert Series which brings outstanding performers to our unforgettable surroundings. See this year’s line-up and purchase tickets here.
Top: This circa 1892 photo shows family and friends visiting George Vanderbilt at Biltmore. From left (seated): Vanderbilt's cousin-in-law Walter Rathbone Bacon, forester Gifford Pinchot, and cousin Virginia Barker Bacon; (standing): Vanderbilt's nieces Emily and Adele Sloan, and George Vanderbilt.
Right: Portrait of Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon by John Singer Sargent, 1896.