Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections

The Sargent Portrait
M. Carey Thomas and John Singer Sargent

Photo of M. Carey Thomas by Frederick HollyerJohn Singer Sargent regarded his portrait of M. Carey Thomas as one of the finest he ever painted. It is undoubtedly the College's most significant work of art, but it is also much more than that, for in capturing the determination and vision of Bryn Mawr's second president, Sargent also created an emblem for the College and its promise of rigorous education for women.

The portrait was commissioned by the Portrait Committee of Alumnae and Students at the College in 1898. At that time Thomas was 41, in her fourth year as president, and fourteenth year as the chief academic officer of Bryn Mawr, having been appointed Dean a year before the school's opening in 1885. Accompanied by her friend, Mary Garrett, Thomas sat for the internationally sought-after painter for six days in London in late July of 1899. Sargent himself supervised the portrait’s framing, paid for by Garrett. The painting arrived around the time of the opening of the school year and was kept in a storeroom in Taylor Hall. On October 31st, Thomas wrote to Garrett:

Well the portrait is finally here as I said & Sat. I had it brought down to my office & the Committee saw it & seem really enchanted with it. Sunday I took Mamie [Gwynn, Thomas's companion and a member of the College faculty] over to see it before it was locked away again in the room over my cloak room in Taylor Hall. Mamie is delighted with it & thinks it one of the very nicest Sargents she has ever seen, a new era in his style. She thinks it is very stately & full of the detachment of a great work of art, very melancholy, not at all "all there" as she considers I am, a youthful knightlike St. George conception of me, more like the im werden Minnie [Thomas's nickname as a girl] in 1872 - all of wh she thinks shows his high artistic conception. She is really far more enthusiastic than I expected. About the date of the presentation there are endless ennuis, the Trustees as usual being most ungracious without intending it. The Committee wish to present it on the 18th, the week before the reception so that it may be shown then in one of the Pembroke corridors at the end on the 2nd floor lit by electric light as is possible now, on easel with an electric battery it seems, but Ed Bettle [a trustee] wants to attend a football match on that day & so is making all kinds of difficulties.

A few days later the portrait was moved to the Deanery, Thomas's residence, where it became a presence in the house.She wrote to Garrett on November 13th:
The other day I was in my bedroom by the bay window & looked up to see a perfect presentation of myself sitting at the window of your room. It was the portrait through the window. It really looked alive. Mamie & I pay it frequent visits. All the color has come back - that had faded during the voyage & even Mamie admits it looks less contemplative & more energetic daily.
As the Portrait Committee had planned, the formal presentation of the portrait to the College was scheduled for November 18th, 1899, in the late afternoon to accommodate the trustees who wanted to attend the Haverford football game. Thomas described the event in a letter to Garrett written two days later:

. . . at 5 I dressed in my black jet & my Sargent gown & hood & cap & went to my office where all the Trustees had gathered except P.C.G. [Phillip C. Garrett, President of the Board] who telegraphed he was in bed with sciatica. I think he really was as he wanted to come. Even old Smiley [Albert Smiley, a trustee from New York] had come & told me afterwards he wd have crossed the continent for it. The faculty sat in front & a very few guests only our neighbors - Elys, Converse, Hentreys & behind the Alumnae & students filling every corner of the chapel & gallery. The Trustee wives were all here & on the left the Trustees sat, the portrait veiled in the center with a red background . . . with a blaze of light on it, beside it I in a red chair and to my right the speakers & the Portrait Committee of 7 in caps & gowns. The speakers one after another. Miss [Marian] MacIntosh of the first classes, Miss [May] Campbell of 97 & Miss [Edna] Fishel of the Senior Class, the Pres of Self Gov for the college students made 5 min. addresses of the most outspoken kind of personal tribute to me & Miss [Louise] Brownell [Dean of Sage College at Cornell and a Bryn Mawr graduate] followed with a 30 minutes speech of the ideals of B.M. wh she said were mine first & last, conception & accomplishment. She then turned from the special to education in general & said what everyone thought of the work done for womens education by me, that I was admittedly by friends & foes the person who had already done most for womens education . . . Miss Martha Thomas then unveiled the portrait.

Sargent's Portrait of M. Carey Thomas