I took off my cap & assumed the attitude & the applause was of course tremendous & unending . . . The Trustees & their wives cd not have been more cordial than they were; they seemed absolutely overwhelmed by the tribute of the students as did the Faculty. They the latter cd hardly trust themselves to speak to me but simply shook hands. I was touched by their seeming to really to care. I must say the Alumnae & students having set out to honour me did it with a thoroughness that left nothing to be desired. It took me utterly by surprise & I minded awfully yr not being there, my beloved. On acct of the Trustees I was delighted to have it happen. For myself I feel as if I cd never live up to [the] portrait they idealised of me.
The Bryn Mawr students were equally proud of the portrait and their president. Content Shepard Nichols, '99, describing the presentation ceremony for the November 24, 1899 issue of The Fortnightly Philistine, concluded her article with a paean to the painting and Thomas:
. . . the portrait - our portrait - belongs to the college and to the future. But that future, past and present of Bryn Mawr are one, I think we cannot doubt, as authorities and student-body, faculty and students, graduates and undergraduates, upper-classmen and lower-classmen, are one, in standing for the idea of women's education, for which it is our pride that Miss Thomas preeminently stands.
The fame of both the subject and the painter drew immediate international attention to the portrait. Its first public exhibition was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in January 1900, after which it joined two other Sargent works in the Paris Exposition of 1900. Francis Ziegler, a reviewer of the exhibition for Brush and Pencil, commented on the differences of opinion about the painting that had appeared in local newspapers:
One critic pronounces Sargent a greatly overrated painter, whose intelligence is not great enough to depict faithfully the character of so learned a woman as Miss Thomas; then the background of the picture comes in for condemnation. Again, it is said that the lady is made to look too young - a gentle fault, surely! . . . As for the criticism on the lack of intelligence in the face of the portrait (let Mr. Sargent defend the charge against himself, if he hold it worth while), that is a poser for me, to whom it seems extraordinary that any one possessed of reasoning faculties and blessed with half an eye should overlook the mental power depicted in this counterfeit presentation of a brainy woman.
That Thomas herself was immensely pleased with Sargent's rendering was no doubt reinforced by Sargent's receiving the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for the portrait and two other paintings. "Mr. Sargent himself told me that he thought it one of the very best things he had done recently and on account of the pains he took with it I am anxious that he should be satisfied." Thomas herself won a medal at the Exposition for her monograph, The Education of Women.
It seems likely that Thomas's satisfaction with Sargent's work contributed to the decision to have Sargent paint Mary Garrett's portrait for Johns Hopkins University. Garrett's Baltimore and Ohio Railroad inheritance had enabled her to make significant endowments to the University for the establishment of the JHU School of Medicine. In making the gifts, she stipulated that the School of Medicine admit women on equal terms with men. She insisted that it be a graduate school and that its students have a thorough undergraduate education in the sciences, French and German, all revolutionary ideas for early twentieth century medical education.
Thomas first approached Sargent about the Garrett commission in 1902 but Sargent declined, citing too many other projects. By 1904, however, he relented and both Garrett and Thomas went to London for the sitting. Sargent's first efforts were not to their liking, so they brought him props - a shawl, gloves and flowers - to enliven Mary's image. They also monitored his work on a group portrait of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine founders, commissioned by Garrett. Sargent later wrote that their constant attention made him feel "like a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor."
The Sargent portrait of Mary Garrett now hangs in the Johns Hopkins School University School of Medicine. With the permission of the Schools Board and Sargent, a copy of it was commissioned by the Bryn Mawr College Board of Trustees from Philadelphia artist Gabrielle de Veaux Clements (1858-1948) in late 1916, a year and a half after Garrett's death. The copy hung in the Reading Room of the Library until the mid-1930s when it was moved to the Deanery, by then the offices of the Alumnae Association. In the Deanery it graced the Dorothy Vernon Room, a reception area on the main floor. It is now displayed in the Dorothy Vernon Room in Haffner Hall.
Thomas apparently considered the Garrett portrait as much a success as her own. She wrote in November 1906,
I should very much like to have my portrait exhibited in Washington [at the Corcoran Gallery of Art], especially as it would, if Miss Garrett's portrait were sent also, enable people to judge Mr. Sargent's method of handling seriously both men and women. So many people have the unjust impression that he is incapable of painting the portrait of a woman as seriously as that of a man.
Sargent's portrait of Thomas was hung in the chapel in Taylor Hall until shortly after the opening of the Library (later Thomas Library) in 1906. It hung in the Reading Room of Thomas until 1998, but it also had a distinguished history of exhibitions in Europe and America, particularly during the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed, it was in such demand that the Board of Trustees ruled in the mid-1910s that the portrait was no longer to be lent for exhibitions for fear that it would be damaged in transit. Exceptions were made for the major Sargent retrospective exhibitions at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1925 and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1926, and again for two exhibitions in the 1970s. Most recently, the portrait has been on tour for two years as part of the re-creation of the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, at which Sargent won the Grand Prix for his group of portraits. The painting has now been installed in the Class of 1912 Rare Book Room in Canaday Library, on the historic site of the Deanery, Thomas's home.
The portrait has appeared in the following major exhibitions: