“The face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child”, is how artist John Singer Sargent described Elizabeth Chanler when he first met her in London in June 1893.
Elizabeth was the oldest surviving daughter of U.S. Representative John Winthrop Chanler (1826–1877) and Margaret Astor Chanler (1838–1875). By the time she was eleven both of her parents had died, and she became the defacto mother figure to her nine siblings. Educated by tutors and at an English boarding school, Elizabeth’s life seemed to be full of tragedy and misfortune. At the age of 12 she developed a pronounced limp and by the age of 14 she was strapped to a board for two years due to a curvature in her spine. Elizabeth would have a delicate disposition and walk with a limp for the rest of her life.
As a young woman she spent many years in Europe with her cousin Daisy Rutherfurd White. Daisy was a member of London’s high society and had helped launch the career of several up-and-coming artists. Among them was John Singer Sargent. In 1883, Daisy had sought out the relatively unknown Sargent to paint her portrait. Sargent’s portrait of Daisy was over seven feet tall and was the focal point of the dining room in the White’s London home. This brought Sargent to the attention of the British aristocracy and enhanced his reputation in England substantially.
In April 1893 twenty-seven-year-old Elizabeth returned to London with her two younger sisters to attend her brother’s wedding. Her sister Margaret who had recently come of age and into her inheritance, wanted a portrait of Elizabeth. Margaret wanted Sargent to do it, but by now he was well known and getting him to take another commission would be hard. But the Chanler family prominence plus their ties to Daisy White made it an easy decision for Sargent. Sargent captured Elizabeth’s face with the still, elegance of a woman of society, yet painted her hands intertwined, tense, as if she were anxious or in pain. These two elements capture the duality of Elizabeth’s life, and offered a foreshadowing of what was yet to come.
A few years earlier, Elizabeth struck up a lively but intense friendship with Minna Timmins Chapman and her husband John Jay Chapman. Minna was bold, generous and impulsive, a stark contrast to Elizabeth’s seriousness and trepidation. John Chapman, or Jack as he was known, was a handsome, charismatic, tortured figure who was an avid writer. Jack was a lawyer on Wall Street but preferred the topics of philosophy and literature. Minna spent a lot of time abroad and in Massachusetts with her children. As a result, Jack was often left in the city. Jack would spend time with the Chanler sisters, often dining with them in New York City while his wife was away. Minna liked that her husband had someone to look after him and that her dear friend Elizabeth has someone who she could relate to. While Minna was happy that her husband and her dear friend had each other, she did not count on them falling in love.
Elizabeth and Jack were madly in love. Their letters, sometimes 20 plus pages in length, were full of devotion and longing. Jack wrote “I love you, and am with you in spirit” and that in her absence he felt that he is “gasping for air or water.” In late October 1896, Elizabeth’s sister Alida was getting married at the family’s estate in the Hudson Valley, Rokeby. Jack would be attending alone and staying the night to spend time with Elizabeth. Sometime during the reception Margaret Chanler realized that her sister, who they had all thought would forever be a spinster due to her injury and delicate disposition, was in love. But that love was forbidden, both in the eyes of society and in the eyes of God. Margaret knew she had to intervene.
That fall the two sisters took a trip to Asia. They traveled all over India, Sri Lanka and Japan. Elizabeth was determined to not allow her disability to keep her from experiencing life. In March 1897, the two women returned to Calcutta where they received a cable with some shocking news: Minna Chapman had died. She had a series of postpartum complications and died a month after she gave birth to her third son. The Chapman boys were now motherless, a feeling that Elizabeth knew all too well. Despite Jack’s insistence that she stay in India and complete her trip, she was determined to get home to him and the children. The sisters returned to New York on April 7th, and Elizabeth raced to Jack’s side.
Victorian convention dictated that Jack needed to be in mourning for one year before he could publicly begin another romantic relationship. He and Elizabeth began a covert and clandestine relationship; meeting in secret, using coded letters and rearranging schedules so they could be together. Elizabeth was eventually confronted by her siblings who warned her that she either needed to stop seeing Jack or marry him. On April 24, 1898 Jack and Elizabeth were married in a small ceremony at her sister’s home. After all this time, they were finally together.
In 1901 to everyone’s surprise, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. Her medical conditions had led everyone to believe that she would never survive childbirth. This should have been a joyous occasion, however just prior to the baby’s birth, Jack suffered a complete mental breakdown spending over a year in a catatonic state. This left Elizabeth to care for the four boys all on her own. It reminded her of her childhood caring for her siblings after the death of her mother. Jack would recover, but his mental health was forever fragile, especially after the death of his son Jay in 1903 and then his eldest son Victor in WWI. Elizabeth was always the steady, stable hand her family needed. The family moved back to Dutchess County and built their own estate near Rokeby. They would permanently reside there for the duration of their lives. Both Elizabeth and Jack found the countryside beneficial to their health. Jack died in 1933. Elizabeth died four years later at the age of seventy-one.
But what happened to the portrait? Apparently, John Singer Sargent was quite fond of it, and when completed tried to hold on to it for as long as possible. Sargent wanted to display the painting at the London Academy in the spring of 1894. He custom ordered a frame with a scallop shell motif and hoped to allow it to “peacefully hang on my walls” until the exhibition. But Margaret Chanler was anxious to have her painting. She agreed to allow Sargent to display it in the exhibition but opted to ship it back and forth across the Atlantic so she could have it sooner.
Margaret loved the painting of her sister and felt it really captured her likeness. For six decades she would have the painting moved twice a year. In late autumn she would have it removed from Rokeby and transported to her Manhattan townhouse where she would winter. It would hang about the fireplace in her drawing room for all to see. When the weather warmed the reverse would happen when she would return to Rokeby for the summer. This would continue until Margaret’s death in 1963. Elizabeth and Jack’s son Chanler took possession of the painting and took it to his family’s estate after his aunt’s death. Removing the large, scalloped frame that Sargent had selected, Chanler hung the painting in the dining room of his home. However, by the 1970s he had gone through his inheritance and announced that he was going to sell the painting as a way to make some money. Other members of the family objected. His half-brother Conrad wanted a more dignified place for Elizabeth’s painting to hang. Elizabeth was the only mother Conrad had ever known, and he was quite fond of her. He convinced Chanler to donate the painting to the Smithsonian. Today the portrait of Elizabeth hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the original frame that was selected by Sargent.