Published: October 12, 2004
Widely renowned as one of the great artists of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, John Singer Sargent gained elite status as a monumental portraitist of sumptuously gowned society matrons and men of great social status and power. During Sargent’s career, presidents, poets, patrons of the arts, dukes and duchesses and tycoons all sat for the acknowledged master.
A new exhibition, currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, focuses on a subject not usually associated with the artist – his profound images of children. “Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children,” on view through January 16, features 43 pictures that have rarely been seen before.
In a time when most of his contemporaries produced the highly popular romantic and sentimental images of children, Sargent was a master of conveying the interior life of the child. While a number of the pictures on view are posed formally, many are simply of children going about the business of childhood. His sitters are not particularly gleeful, most gaze solemnly out at the world around them. Some are all dimples and innocence; others are just as worldly as the infamous Madame X.
Sargent’s children reveal an unexpected dimension of the artist and gave an unanticipated twist to his career. Although children’s portraits were not generally exhibited publicly during the period, Sargent bucked the trend. Moreover, he did so strategically. His pictures of children were less often the formal portrait meant to reflect or enhance the subject’s social position than they were compositions and explorations of the subject – childhood in all its stages and phases.
An 1875 likeness on view of his solemn 5-year-old sister Violet was done when Sargent was 18 or 19. It is the earliest surviving picture Sargent is known to have painted. He used his younger sisters as models frequently, leading some to suggest them as the reason for his lifelong interest in painting children.
The first canvas he exhibited publicly was “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale” at the 1878 Society of American Artists show. In that picture, the four fisherwomen along the beach are accompanied by two boys. The four adults are centered on the canvas in shadow but sunlight catches the children off to the side and they become dominant.
The following year Sargent entered “Neapolitan Children Bathing” in the National Academy of Design’s annual show where it was very warmly received. The picture, sometimes called “Innocence Abroad,” was acclaimed for several reasons: Sargent’s light and color is breathtaking, plein air was still novel; the four little boys are very appealing and their seemingly random postures are anything but. The youngest faces the viewer with his feet planted securely in the sand while the second youngest is positioned directly in the center of the picture with his back to the viewer. The two older boys are sprawled prominently in the sand looking away.
The picture, like Sargent’s 1882 work “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” exhibited originally as “Portraits d’enfants,” comprises four separate sitters, each set apart by his age and stage. In each painting, the youngest child is the most available. The figures draw the eye again and again.
Why children and where did the interest come from? Child imagery was not new. One had only to look to Sargent’s influences – Velasquez, Joshua Reynolds and his teacher Carolus-Duran, among others – to see the emergence of child portraiture from the Victorian strictures of the ornately sentimental. But there was something more. In her bestselling 1900 volume The Century of the Child, Swedish author and feminist Ellen Key proposed that children should be the central work of the Twentieth Century. She placed great value on motherhood and urged parents to give their children more attention. Her proposal was a shot heard round the world.
Sargent and other late Nineteenth Century artists were ahead of the curve in their employment of the child as a subject of art.
In the catalog that accompanies the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, curator Barbara Dayer Gallati suggests that Sargent made deliberate use of child imagery to advance his own professional standing. The unintended consequence of that, she further posits, was that the child gained a higher place in the order of acceptable subjects of the visual arts. Yet, it was Sargent who was instrumental in rendering the child an image worthy of artistic consideration. Under his hand, children were thinking, considering beings whose unknown thoughts intrigued the viewer.
Gallati cites the 1881 portrait “Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron” as a powerful demonstration of Sargent’s strategic and skillful self-advancement. It is a dramatic and slightly exotic rendering of the children that makes them appear to have a dark secret. Many of the children in Sargent’s pictures gaze out from the canvas in an eerily self-contained manner. Most were posed; perhaps the strain of sitting still for long periods told in their faces.
Marie-Louise looks directly out from the canvas while her brother Edouard is turned at an oblique angle. She wears a ruffled and lacy dress and looks solemn and determined while her brother is brooding in black. The slight distance between them renders them quite separate. Some feel that Marie-Louise dominates the canvas, yet the convoluted posture of her elder brother off to the left invites the eye.
In the 1884 “Garden Study of the Vickers Children,” Sargent positions two young children among lush lilies. The girl attends to the task of watering the plants while her brother is offset by her white smock and looks directly out from the canvas. On the face of it, the picture is charming; on second glance the innocence of the children is in sharp contraposition to the large and exotic blossoms. The connection between the children is evident. There is affection there.
The painting is remarkably similar to the later (1885 or 1886) highly Impressionistic “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” that was selected by the Royal Academy for the 1887 show.
The picture of two little girls in white dresses thoroughly engrossed in lighting Japanese lanterns in a twilight garden of lilies and roses is named for a song popular in its day. Neither child looks toward the viewer. The painting was awarded a Chantry Bequest under the terms by which it was purchased for the national art collection. Reaction to the award was vigorous: some loved its light and color; others were scandalized by its apparent casualness. It is on loan from the Tate Gallery.
The subjects of the 1878 “Head of Ana-Capri Girl” and the 1880 “Carmela Bertagna” were child-women that Gallati includes in her survey of children. Both subjects have exotic and sensual features and are described in the catalog as “untamed.” They are in direct contrast to Sargent’s paintings of his sisters Emily and Violet that he executed around the same time.
A circa 1888 portrait of Cecil Harrison, also known as “The Late Major E.C. Harrison as a Boy,” is of a half boy, half man. His confident stance belies his childish countenance. He wears a sailor suit, which was the fashion for boys of the day. Sargent also painted Caspar Goodrich and Daniel deMendi Macmillan in sailor suits.
One of the most appealing pictures in the exhibit is the 1887 view of the 1-year-old “Daniel deMendi Macmillan,” who even as a baby regards the viewer soberly. As in Sargent’s 1900 painting of “Dorothy,” the subject sits and gazes in a contemplative way.
In “Dorothy,” the child wears an elaborate bonnet at a rakish angle. Her expression suggests strongly that she agreed to sit for her portrait only if she could decide how to wear her hat. Her right hand leans on the arm of her chair in a determined sort of way and the portrait is not simply of a pretty child, but of a definite personality. Like “Dorothy,” Sargent’s painting of Ruth Sears Bacon depicts a charming and squirmy little girl who could not wait to get out of her chair.
Sargent’s paintings of children suggest a rapport between subject and the artist who seemed to read his sitters. His portraits of mothers and their children demonstrate the same relationship between the child and artist, but the children are almost always subordinate to the figure of the mother. The usual Madonna-child imagery is largely absent. Instead, the mother is generally dominant, large, often haughty and the children are clearly secondary though charmingly rendered. Where there is a father figure, he is remote or obscured. There is a very real sense of disconnect in the family dynamic.
Exactly what was Sargent representing in these pictures? He was regarded warily by many who suspected him of irreverence in his depiction of his grander subjects. Perhaps the same subtle impertinence governed in these paintings. In “The Birthday Party,” a large mother in red against a darker red wall manages a birthday cake while the little boy is set apart, and his wide-eyed face is illuminated by candles of the cake. The father is a dark shape hovering in the shadows behind the mother.
In his 1912 “Gypsy Encampment,” the dynamic differs. A grandmother holds a baby with both arms. They sit on the ground in the lower center of the canvas while other family members are situated to the left in the sunshine. The child is treasured – he is touched.
“Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children” is accompanied by a scholarly catalog with the same title. The book’s 256 pages are replete with excellently reproduced images of Sargent’s paintings, as well as Sargent family photographs, some of which have never before been reproduced. Written by exhibit curator Barbara Dayer Gallati, it includes valuable contributions by Erica E. Hirshler of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Richard Ormond, director of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné Project and the artist’s great-nephew. The book is a joint publication of the Brooklyn Museum and the Bulfinch Press of the Time Warner Book Group.
Another serviceable reference on Sargent is the 1999 John Singer Sargent edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond that was published Princeton University Press.
“Great Expectations” remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 16. It travels to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., February 22 through May 22, and opens at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Ore., on June 18.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is at 200 Eastern Parkway. For information, 718-6385000 or www.brooklynmuseum.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm