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Portraits of Children, in All Their Squirming, Regal Glory

The New York Times, October 8, 2004'
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Think of John Singer Sargent (1856-1924), and you think of dashing society portraits of elegant matrons in fashionable gowns, adorned by lustrous jewels, exuding high-born privilege and entitlement. These swans were Sargent's livelihood for much of his career, and his bravura brushwork and sense of style gave even the dimmest of them an appeal that might or might not have existed off canvas. 

But Sargent painted other subjects, too, not least among them children. And in these portraits, although mostly of upper-class offspring, he tended to get real. In his best work he seemed to see his young subjects as distinctive individuals rather than the syrupy stereotypes portrayed by his Victorian and 18th-century predecessors. 

True, he was most comfortable with children he knew, like the fractious Homer Saint-Gaudens in his “Portrait of a Boy (Homer Saint-Gaudens and His Mother)” of 1890. In it he depicts Homer, the all-too-human 10-year-old son of his friend the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, hyperactively straddling the corner of a chair, tense, fidgety and obviously bored to death, as his mother reads aloud to calm him down. 

(The young Saint-Gaudens grew up to become a reporter, an art critic, a writer, an actor, a stage designer, a lecturer on the arts and for 28 years, director of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. He recalled in later life that as a boy, he “had no respect whatsoever and scant liking for John Singer Sargent,” who during the course of 10 posing sessions, he said, had tried to modify his behavior by repeatedly sitting on him.) 

Sargent's views of Homer and other children — on canvas and off — are the meat of “Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children,” an exhibition of some 40 works that opens today at the Brooklyn Museum. Organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati, its curator of American art, the show takes its title from the Dickens novel, which traces a boy's progression from childhood to maturity. 

Of interest is that Brooklyn owns a superb collection of Sargent watercolors, bought as early as 1909, and that Sargent himself developed strong ties to the museum, making frequent visits and giving advice on acquisitions to A. Augustus Healy, who from 1895 to 1920 was president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the museum's forerunner. 

The exhibition has large ambitions, among them to explore how Sargent's paintings “satisfied or contradicted” the changing notions of childhood that came into play at the end of the 19th century, when children began to be regarded as distinctive personalities, taking in the world on their own terms while relating to adult society's values, economic conditions and particular environments. 

In “Dorothy” (1900), a portrait of the very young daughter of George Millar Williamson, a wealthy art and rare-book collector in Sparkill, N.Y., the 2- or 3-year-old is infantilized by a demure white dress with ruffled collar and sleeves, a too-large bonnet plunked on her head. Her dress is very much in the style of an upper-class child of the period. 

Yet, seated straight up in a large chair against a background of restrained red, she looks more like a grande dame than a cuddly toddler as she stares with grumpy intensity at the viewer, one hand regally draped over the chair arm. Sargent has made her a personage, no longer a Victorian paragon of childhood sweetness. 

With renditions like this, the show argues, he helped raise the marginal status previously given children's likenesses to a much higher rung in the hierarchy of artistic subjects, more reflective of the changed outlook on childhood that emerged at the end of the 19th century. 

On the other hand, in Sargent's least interesting endeavors, his subjects come off more or less tailored to suit family taste, as in his sumptuous extravaganza “Lady Warwick and Her Son” (1905). Apparently conceived to tie in with the noble Greville family's dynastic tradition of portraits, it is almost a parody of the Grand Manner style perfected by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and company. 

Against a tasteful estate background of forest and open sky, Lady Warwick is portrayed in an elaborate gown with a train, one arm around her small son, Maynard, as he sits on a marble column base. The too-pretty little boy, his hair a mass of curls, is dressed in a frilly white shirt and black tights. He leans toward his protective mother, toying with the rope of pearls draped over her shelflike bosom. Interestingly, Lady Warwick herself, while to the manner born, was a thoroughly modern, politically engaged woman, a Socialist who worked for child welfare and the reform of prisons and secondary education. 

Compare the chillingly stylized portrait mentioned above with the engaging intimacy of a much earlier Sargent canvas, “The Birthday Party” (circa 1885), depicting Sargent's friend the painter Albert Besnard, his wife, Charlotte, a sculptor, and their small son Robert as they celebrate the boy's birthday around a table that holds a cake with lighted candles.

The boy's happy face is emphasized in the glow of the cake, presented by his comfortably matronly mother as she sits at the table in a festive red gown. She is strikingly half-silhouetted against the dark figure of the father, a less distinctive presence hovering behind her. 

Despite his lifelong bachelorhood, Sargent was by no means indifferent to family values, to use a now-corrupted phrase, and this informal painting — seeming to invite the presence at the table of the painter himself — suggests the warm relationship the parents shared with their eldest son. (He died in World War I, as did several other subjects depicted in this show.)  

Although Sargent, trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in the atelier of the French academician Carolus-Duran, remained a traditional painter despite the rising tide of Impressionism, he was not unaffected by it, as the show reveals. The Besnard family, with its Vuillard-style compositional intimacy, is one example; another is the endearing “Ruth Sears Bacon” (1887), in which a very young, sweet-faced girl with a doll is shown nestled in the depths of an almost abstract chair conjured up by impassioned, Impressionist-style brushstrokes. 

Sargent was not known as a great psychological explorer, although one of his most famous paintings of children, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882), seems in hindsight to hint at trouble. In an unusual compositional device for Sargent, the four girls are arranged in a dark interior, relatively isolated from one another. Oddly enough, they all had problems of mental or emotional instability in adulthood, a circumstance that makes Sargent's painting seem strangely prophetic. Unfortunately, the portrait, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was not available for this exhibition. 

Included here are a number of Italian children used by Sargent as models; several sensitive portraits of his sister Violet, from baby to adult, the earliest done when Sargent was 16; and other famous portraits of family clusters. Among them are the flossy “Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children” (1886), wife and offspring of a London banker; and “Essie, Ruby and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer” (1902), part of the brood of a well-known London art dealer.

Perhaps to bulk out the show, several rather slight souvenirs of Sargent's travels in Europe are also on view, among them “Tyrolese Crucifix” (1915), a weak painting that is apparently relevant because it shows children huddled on a staircase, as their father prepares to mount a crucifix on the wall of their house. 

But altogether the exhibition, said to be the first to bring together Sargent's influential portraits of children, is an important and interesting contribution. It is buttressed by an insightful catalog, with essays by Ms. Gallati; Richard Ormond, Sargent's great-nephew and director of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné Project; and Erica E. Hirshler, senior curator of paintings in the art of the Americas department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The beauty part is that the children in the show make no noise whatever.

Special thanks to Matt Davies, of Kansas City, a friend of the JSS Gallery, for sending me a note regarding this article.

By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 10/12/2004