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A Last Hurrah: Portraits By Wiles

May 2024
2min read

He was the best society portraitist of his day. But that day came to an end.

He was the natural successor to John Singer Sargent, but Irving R. Wiles was born just a little too late to be celebrated by posterity, and today his name is all but forgotten.

Not only was Wiles one of America’s most successful and admired portrait painters during the first quarter of this century, he was one of the best. His patrons included financiers, statesmen, society hostesses, art collectors, popular actresses, and a President of the United States. Influential critics ranked him among the best portrait painters on either side of the Atlantic, his work surpassed only by that of the famous Sargent.

Wiles’s portraits are part of the grand-manner tradition as redefined during the late nineteenth century by Sargent, James Whistler, and Giovanni Boldini, Like his contemporaries, Wiles studied the old masters to learn the secrets of their techniques; copies of works by Velázquez and Hals hung in his studio. These lessons, however, were tempered by the need to portray the look and spirit of a modern society. Wiles entered the arena of portraiture at a propitious moment. During the early 1900s Sargent was withdrawing from the field, Boldini’s talents were on the wane, and Whistler was soon to die.

Wiles enjoyed the kind of life that was much admired by his contemporaries but that has since become almost suspect: he was successful, modest, well-mannered, and well-liked. Born in upstate New York in 1861, he was introduced to painting by his father, Lemuel Maynard Wiles, a moderately successful artist best known for his landscapes. After a brief apprenticeship with his father, Wiles attended the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied painting with William Merritt Chase. After the League he made the obligatory trip to Paris and studied for about two years at the popular Acadámie Julian and in the studio of Carolus-Duran, a successful portrait painter and teacher (Sargent had been one of his pupils).

After returning to New York in 1884, Wiles quickly became a part of the circle of young, European-trained painters working in the city. Like many artists of the period, he supplemented his income by working for the popular illustrated magazines— Century , Scribner’s , and Harper’s —and doing commercial art for products such as Ivory soap.

In 1902, after some early successes as a figure and landscape painter, Wiles exhibited at the National Academy of Design a portrait of the actress Julia Marlowe that altered the course of his career; his painting was the great triumph of that year’s exhibition. Contemporary viewers admired Wiles’s ability to combine dazzling brushwork with a true likeness of the sitter, and The Art Interchange declared it “as good a thing as this brilliant artist has ever done.”

For years Wiles had sought portrait commissions. Now they came crowding in on him. By 1910 a steady stream of wealthy and socially prominent Americans was passing through his new studio on West Fifty-seventh Street. The artist’s sitters soon included some of the country’s most influential businessmen, statesmen, and politicians: Charles A. Schieren, the former mayor of Brooklyn; William Jennings Bryan; D. C. Jackling, president of the Utah Copper Company; and, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt. “He gets character into these portraits,” a critic for the New York Tribune reported in 1916, “and it rests upon solid workmanship.”

Although some may have preferred the restraint of the artist’s male portraits, most viewers felt that Wiles rose to his greatest powers when he painted women. The style of female portrait for which Wiles was most appreciated is typified by his Miss Julia Marlowe . The actress perches on the edge of a small settee in front of a curtain in the studio. Wiles accentuates her lively, animated pose by using a high viewpoint for the composition, working in quick strokes of fluid color whose beauty is as compelling as that of the sitter.

Enthusiastic reviews generated more commissions, and Wiles executed them with unflagging dexterity and vigor. It was the world that changed.

By the last years of the artist’s long career, elegance of subject and dexterity of brushwork had passed out of fashion. When Wiles died at Peconic, New York, in 1948, only a handful of the many artists who had been his friends remained to mourn his passing. In many ways Wiles’s portraits were the last hurrah of great society portraiture.

An exhibition of Wiles’s work, organized by the National Academy of Design, will be at the Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood in Nashville, Tennessee, through October 2.

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