The Breakfast Table
© President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

In this lively portrait, Sargent explores the material culture of the Victorian elite. The ostensible subject is his younger sister, Violet, who peels an orange in the midst of her morning reading. But Sargent is as interested in conveying his sister’s character as he is in portraying her surroundings. Laden with ceramics, crystal, crisp white linens, and shimmering silver, The Breakfast Table captures the look and feel of the well-appointed French apartment that the Sargent family rented in the south of France in the summer of 1883.

Painted in Paris, the work exemplifies Sargent’s regard for the formal innovations of the French impressionists. With its cropped and compressed foreground, loose brushwork, and muted palette punctuated by daubs of bright white, it evokes the paintings of Degas and Manet. An inscription at lower right dedicates the work to Albert Besnard, a French artist and friend who also explored the effects of light and shadow.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
John Singer Sargent, American (Florence, Italy 1856 - 1925 London, England)
The Breakfast Table
Other Titles
Former Title: Miss Violet Sargent
Former Title: La Jeune Fille dans la salle à manger
Former Title: Miss Millet at Breakfast
Work Type
1883 - 1884
Level 2, Room 2100, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, Painting and Photography in an Era of Social Change
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
54 x 45 cm (21 1/4 x 17 11/16 in.)
framed: 70.5 x 61.6 x 5.7 cm (27 3/4 x 24 1/4 x 2 1/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.r.: à mon cher ami Besnard / John S. Sargent
  • inscription: l.r., paint, in artist's hand: a mon cher ami B[esnard].
John Singer Sargent, gift; to Albert Besnard, 1883-84, sold; to Hector Brame, 1931, sold; to [Knoedler and Co., July 1931], sold; to Anna R. (Mrs. John D.) Mills, May or June 1935, sold; to [Knoedler & Co., October 1935], sold; to Grenville L. Winthrop [through Martin Birnbaum], New York, NY, October 1935, bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
Publication History

Frederic Fairchild Sherman, "Some Early Paintings by John S. Sargent", Art In America (June 1933), vol. XXI, no. 3, pp. 94-99, p. 96; repr. p. 97

Martin Birnbaum, John Singer Sargent, January 12, 1856-April 15, 1925: A Conversation, William E. Rudge's Sons (New York, NY, 1941), p. 29, repr. in b/w p. 50

Fogg Art Museum and Benjamin Rowland, Jr., Real and Ideal in American Art, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA, Summer 1948), cat. 26

Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, W. W. Norton & Company (New York, NY, 1955), no. K853, p. 445

David McKibbin, Sargent's Boston, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1956), p. 113, Check List of Sargent's Portraits; repr. as fig. 8, p. 23

Martin Birnbaum, The Last Romantic (New York, NY, 1960), p. 217

Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, Harper & Row (New York, NY and London, England, 1970), p. 32; repr. in color, fig. 32

Louise Todd Ambler and Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, "American Painting at Harvard", Antiques (New York, NY, November 1972), vol. 102, no. 5, pp. 876-883, pp. 877, 879, fig. 9

Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 116, ill.

Edwin Austin Abbey, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT, 1974), p. 60; p. 19, fig. 14

Marc A. Simpson, "Two Recently Discovered Paintings by John Singer Sargent", Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (New Haven, CT, Fall 1980), vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 6-11, repr. in b/w fig. 5, p. 10; text p. 9

John Singer Sargent, His Own Work, exh. cat., Coe Kerr Gallery, Inc. (New York, NY, 1980), in checklist, unpaginated

Carter Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, Abbeville Press (New York, 1982), repr. fig. 6, p. 13

Kristin A. Mortimer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums/Abbeville Press (Cambridge, MA; New York, NY, 1985), p. 185, cat. 211, ill.

Caroline A. Jones, Modern Art at Harvard: The Formation of the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, exh. cat., Abbeville Press/Harvard University Art Museums (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA, 1985), reproduced in color, fig. 12, p. 26

Trevor J. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent and America, Garland Publishing, Inc. (New York, NY, 1986), p. 199, n. 8

Warren Adelson and Stanley Olson, Sargent at Broadway: The Impressionist Years, exh. cat., Universe/Coe Kerr Gallery (New York, NY, 1986), repr. p. 36

Barbara Scott, "Letter from Paris: The Artist in his Studio", Apollo (November 1991), mentioned p. 360

Kate F. Jennings, John Singer Sargent, Crescent Books (New York, NY, 1991), repr. in color, p. 18

Portrait de l'Artiste, auct. cat., Bob P. Haboldt & Co. (Paris, France, 1991 - 1992), pp. 222-223; repr. p. 223

Trevor J. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1994), pp. 56-57, repr. in color p. 54

Warren Adelson, Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, Abbeville Press (New York, NY, 1997), repr. in color p. 17, fig. 7

Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Publishing Limited (London, England, 1998), p. 29, reproduced in b/w fig. 30

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven, CT and London, England, 1998), pp. 79 - 80, repr. in color p. 79, cat. no. 74

Jean Strouse, Alice James: A Biography, Harvard University Press (Cambridge MA, 1999), repr. on cover

Warren Adelson, Jay Cantor, and William H. Gerdts, Childe Hassam: Impressionist, Abbeville Press (New York, NY and London, England, 1999), fig. 21

Thomas Otten, "Slashing Henry James (On Painting and Political Economy, circa 1900)", The Yale Journal of Criticism, Yale University (New Haven, CT, Fall 2000), vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 293-320, pp. 310-311, repr. in b/w p. 310

Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, Sargent e l'Italia, exh. cat., Ferrara Arte SpA (Ferrara, Italy, 2002), repr. fig. 18; detail repr. fig. 19

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press (New York, NY, 2003), pp. 458-60, cat. 207, ill.

Christopher Riopelle, Harvard's Winthrop Collection: Nineteenth-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, exh. cat., National Gallery Company Limited (London, 2003), p. 46, cat. 33, ill.

Stephan Wolohojian, Ingres, Burne-Jones, Whistler, Renoir... La Collection Grenville L. Winthrop, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris, France, 2003), pp. 472-474, cat. 207, ill.

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Virginia Anderson, and Kimberly Orcutt, ed., American Paintings at Harvard, Volume Two, Paintings, Drawings, Pastels and Stained Glass by Artists Born 1826-1856, Harvard University Art Museums/Yale University Press (Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT, 2008), p. 302-04, cat. no. 318, reproduced in color, p. 303

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 2008), ill. p. 168

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907, Yale University Press (New Haven and London, 2012), p. 98 (note 6)

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1908-1913, Yale University Press (New Haven and London, 2014), p. 103 n.6

Ethan Lasser, "A spirited conversation: The European and American Galleries at the Harvard Art Museums", The Magazine Antiques (2015), pp. 204-209, p. 206 and repr. p. 205 in fig. 2 and on p. 205 as fig. 5

Exhibition History

Unidentified Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1934, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 06/01/1934 - 05/31/1935

Loan Exhibition of Interiors and Paintings of Interiors, Knoedler & Co. Inc., New York, 06/19/1934 - 07/19/1934

Paintings and Watercolors by John Singer Sargent, R.A., M. Knoedler & Co., Newport, 08/19/1935 - 09/03/1935

Real and Ideal in American Art, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 06/01/1948 - 09/01/1948

American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972

Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1977 - 08/31/1977

Modern Art at Harvard, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/21/1985 - 01/05/1986

A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, 03/15/2003 - 05/26/2003; National Gallery, London, 06/25/2003 - 09/14/2003; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 10/23/2003 - 01/25/2004

For Students of Art and Lovers of Beauty: Highlights from the Collection of Grenville L. Winthrop, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/16/2004

Re-View: S424-426 Western Art from 1560 to 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

32Q: 2100 19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/01/2014

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

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