Lady Helen Vincent, a British socialite John Singer Sargent painted in 1904, may not have chosen the gown he painted her in. In fact, Sargent may have made it up.
The painting is one of about 50 in “Fashioned by Sargent,” opening Oct. 8 at the Museum Fine Arts and organized by the MFA and Tate Britain. Sargent lived from the time of the hoop skirt to the time of the flapper, and the exhibition examines how he used clothes to his own end: as compositional elements, to express something about his subject, or to create a painting that would outlast any fashion trend. It includes some of the artist’s best known works, including his iconic “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau).”
Sargent painted Lady Vincent in Venice.
“A lot of what we know about it comes from Sargent refusing a lunch invitation from his cousin, Mrs. Curtis, who lived down the Grand Canal,” said Erica E. Hirshler, senior curator of American paintings at the MFA, who organized the exhibition. “He writes and says, ‘I can’t get away from this painting. I’m in the middle of painting and dressmaking.’”
Hirshler and Lydia Vagts, conservator of paintings, met with the Globe in late August in the museum’s new Conservation Center, which opened last November, where “Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess D’Abernon (Helen Duncombe)” stands near a 1917 portrait of business magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller.
Rockefeller is here for some retouching. Lady Vincent, loaned to “Fashioned by Sargent” by the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, is a bigger project. Her off-the-shoulder black gown with a plunging neckline is covered with cracks.
“It started as a white dress, and at some point it sounded like he became dissatisfied with it. Scraped it down and repainted,” Hirshler said. “Sargent changed her clothes.”
That improvisation has a cost.
“Oftentimes when you have the original paint film, particularly something that’s white or has a lot of white lead in it, it’s going to dry slowly,” Vagts explained. “The much thinner paint layer resting on top of it is going to dry quickly. As that bottom layer dries, it’s going to pull that top layer with it because they’re not drying at the same rate. It creates what we call a traction crackle pattern.”
After putting Lady Vincent under an X-ray, Vagts found the white dress, which she believes is twice the size of the black one, with a much fuller skirt. Removing old varnish from the portrait, she discovered other things.
“Cleaning the hair, I have noticed that I think there is a certain amount of gray there,” she said, pointing out turquoise, blue, and pink highlights in gray in the hair of the noblewoman, who was in her late 30s in 1904.
Hirshler said Sargent was in control of the portrait process. “He wasn’t just the servant of all of his rich sitters doing whatever they wanted him to do,” she said. “He was actively telling them what to wear, or showing things in a different way than maybe they expected.”
Look at the Rockefeller. The business magnate and philanthropist — thought to be the richest man in modern history — is dressed down, sitting in a simple Windsor chair.
Hirshler said it’s not clear what the tycoon thought of the portrait, but not everybody liked it.
“His son thought it was too informal,” she said.
Rockefeller may have chosen his own costume. But Sargent, by this time, added to the work’s understated effect with quiet tones and economical brushwork.
“What I love about this portrait is there’s almost no there there,” Vagts said. “There’s hardly any indication of the pants, the separation of the tie and the vest, and the collar is just a few brush strokes.”
“Fashioned by Sargent” features more than a dozen dresses and accessories alongside the paintings that depict them. Lady Vincent’s dress isn’t here — after all, Sargent appears to have made it up.
“And it is just a very odd garment, too,” Vagts observed.
The socialite wears a pink wrap around the dress. There’s a fur piece near the bodice that Hirshler and Vagts can’t make sense of.
“Is it connected to the pink thing, or is it the top of the dress? We don’t know,” said Hirshler.
The painter also took liberties with garments he painted more faithfully. In a 1907 portrait, “Lady Sassoon (Aline de Rothschild)” wears a black taffeta opera cloak lined with pink satin. The painting and the cloak will both be on view.
In ordinary circumstances, the lining would only be glimpsed. In the painting, Lady Sassoon holds the robe slightly open and twisted across her torso, exposing the pink.
“Sargent does this pinning and draping of the cloak so that he gets this S-curve of pink,” Hirshler said.
As with “Lady Helen Vincent,” there’s evidence of experimentation.
“There is a lot of traction crackle in that painting,” said Vagts, “which I can only assume means he played around with how he changed the position to get it exactly how he wanted that curve to go.”
Fashion, for Sargent, was in the service of art.
“It’s all about making choices.” Hirshler said. Examining clothing in the paintings reveals what he chose.
“We find out by doing this comparison. The people aren’t around anymore,” Hirshler said. “But some of the clothes survive.”
FASHIONED BY SARGENT
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Oct. 8-Jan. 15. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org