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Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

February 26 - May 22, 2005


(above: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 - 1925), Essie, Ruby, and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer, 1902, oil on canvas. Tate, London, presented by the widow and family of Asher Wertheimer inaccordance with his wishes © Tate, London, 2003)

Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children features the art of one of the most renowned American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This extraordinary exhibition includes 41 major paintings and works on paper by Sargent, the premier international portraitist of fin-de-siècle Europe and America's Gilded Age. The show is organized by the Brooklyn Museum, where it made its debut last September. After it closes at the Chrysler on May 22, it will conclude its national tour at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

Sargent achieved mastery with a variety of subjects and techniques. He was exceptionally gifted as a painter of landscape and genre scenes of everyday life. He was one of the era's most inspired watercolorists, painting light-filled landscape and figurative scenes out of doors. But it was as a portrait painter, working in oils, that he attained his greatest fame, portraying the rich, famous and powerful in both Europe and the United States with an unparalleled elegance and panache. By the mid-1880s he had become the most sought-after portraitist on both sides of the Atlantic, a virtuoso universally acclaimed for his impetuous, brushy painting technique and brilliant use of light and color. (right: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 - 1925), Caspar Goodrich, ca. 1887, oil on canvas. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Kojaian)

Though a number of exhibitions have been devoted to Sargent's paintings as a whole, none has focused specifically on his paintings and portraits of children, which are among his most beloved works. This is the novel premise of Great Expectations, which aims not only to show the finest of his childhood images, but to demonstrate how Sargent in these works moved beyond the traditional, sentimental conception of childhood toward a more modern view of children as distinct individuals in the process of growing up.

The paintings in the exhibition range from modest, gem-like "souvenirs" of children meant solely for the private enjoyment of their doting families to grand portrait productions meant for public exhibition and the palatial homes of their commissioners. Highlights of the show include his sprightly portrayal of Ruth Sears Bacon, then three years old; his ravishing 1902 portrayal of the children of the prominent London art dealer Asher Wertheimer; and a stately succession of major images of mothers and children, including his depiction of Mrs. Edward Davis and her son Livingston, which fairly bursts with New England pluck and pride.

Sargent was a master of the brush, and the works included in Great Expectations are breathtakingly beautiful. They can be enjoyed, then, on several levels-most immediately as objects of pure optical pleasure, and more profoundly as sophisticated and very knowing studies of individual personality, family dynamics, and social class at the end of the 19th century.

Great Expectations is made possible in part by the generosity of Jan and Warren Adelson. Additional support is provided by Ron and Barbara Cordover, the Brooklyn Museum's Richard and Barbara Debs Exhibition Fund, the Gilder Foundation, Michael Humphreys, Ed and Deborah Shein, the Lunder Foundation and the Museum's American Art Council. The Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities has granted an indemnity for this project. Local presentation of Great Expectations is made possible through the generosity of the Business Exhibition Council of the Chrysler Museum of Art, with additional support provided by Anonymous, Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel A. Arias, Mr. and Mrs. James V. Bickford, Mr. and Mrs. Macon F. Brock, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Roy M. Newton.


(above: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 - 1925), Ruth Sears Bacon, 1887, oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mrs. Austin Cheney)


Selected didactic texts from the exhibition:


Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children investigates how John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), one of the foremost artists of his time, represented children in portraits and genre paintings. To underscore the central role that childhood played in the nineteenth century, the exhibition takes its title from Charles Dickens's 1861 novel, Great Expectations, which traces a boy's passage from child to adult. But the purpose of the exhibition is to show how Sargent's paintings confirmed or challenged expectations about childhood at the end of the nineteenth century. In the process, it blends three fundamentally separate themes: the history of childhood (in sociocultural terms), the imagery of childhood in Western art, and the development of Sargent's own career.

Although children may not immediately come to mind when we think of Sargent, they appear frequently in several types of paintings he did throughout his career-in commissioned and non-commissioned portraits and in genre, or thematic, subjects. The portraits in the exhibition have been chosen to highlight the various ways in which Sargent created the impression of individuality -- how the pose, lighting, and setting, in addition to facial expression, encourage us to view his young sitters as unique personalities rather than as mere stereotypes of childhood. The genre paintings were selected to suggest how Sargent's representations of children can color the meaning of an image or the reception of a particular style.

The exhibition presents the idea that Sargent deliberately exhibited paintings of children at crucial points in his career to shape critical and public opinion of his art; that his art lifted the theme of childhood above that of sentimentality; and that his alteration of traditional childhood imagery paralleled new attitudes about children then forming in Europe and North America. Sargent's thoughts about these matters are unknown, and any conclusions we may draw rest mainly on looking at Sargent's art in relation to the cultural climate in which it was made and the reception it received.


The Shifting Definition of Childhood [1]

A child is commonly defined as a boy or a girl under the age of puberty. But the concept of childhood is essentially elastic, depending on place, economic status, religious belief, and other qualities having to do with cultural environment. Today the question of the nature of childhood remains open: is it defined by age, physical and mental characteristics, behavior, or a combination of these factors together with the qualities mentioned above?

Crucial changes in the notion of childhood occurred in Europe during the eighteenth century, when the child became a symbol of new philosophical views about mankind's nature and rights. Two notable sources of these ideas were the philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that children should be valued for their own qualities, especially their innocence, and not merely as adults-in-the-making. Childhood as the embodiment of unspoiled humanity was reflected in the art of the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who often portrayed children seated in secluded, forested settings. Picturing childhood in this way not only connected it with innocence and defined it as a natural, separate phase of existence. It also invested childhood with an aura of nostalgia by reminding adults of the brevity of life and of a state of moral purity that cannot be reclaimed.

At the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes about children changed again. The process of growing up, for both individuals and societies, was thought to involve corruption. To avoid moral decay, child protection laws and organizations began to multiply in Europe and the United States, along with new laws requiring free and mandatory public education. These changes reduced the number of children in the workforce, turning them into dependents and reorganizing national and family economies. The increasing separation of children from adult society encouraged the idealization of childhood and was reflected in the economic and medical spheres. In the marketplace, products were designed especially for children, and new specialties in medicine, psychology, and sociology were developed. So great was the growing interest in childhood that some writers referred to the dawning twentieth century as the "Age of the Child."

Sargent's intense study of the art of the past ensured his knowledge of the history of the imagery of the child. It also gave him a basic visual language to modify subject matter to fit his artistic aims. It is not known if he himself was interested in the social study of childhood, but he did own a first edition of Rousseau's landmark book Emile (1762). Yet Sargent must have been aware of contemporary social changes (which included the redefinition of childhood), since he was both a witness and a contributor to the cultural life of his time. In any event, an awareness of such changes was a traditional and basic requirement for a successful portraitist.


Family Matters [2]

Most portraits of children are made for their parents. This was certainly true for John Singer Sargent's family. His parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam and Mary Singer Sargent, left the United States in 1854 to live in Europe, where the artist was born in 1856. Many of Dr. Sargent's letters to his family back home mention that he had received photographs and contained recent pictures of his own children. The Sargents' use of photographs to preserve family connections must have made the young John Singer Sargent aware of the purposes of portraiture, helping him to understand that a portrait is more than a likeness of a specific person: it has the power to fulfill many, overlapping desires, from the artistic, documentary, social, and economic to the emotional.

By most standards, Sargent had an unusual childhood. His parents moved constantly, seldom remaining in one place for more than a few months at a time. Though it gave him little chance for formal schooling or long-term friendships, Sargent's parents' lifestyle provided him with a broad education based on his exposure to the cultural riches of Europe. His love for drawing was encouraged by his mother, who was an amateur watercolorist.

Despite Sargent's unconventional childhood and lifelong bachelorhood, his life and his paintings reveal that he valued the comforts of family relationships. His paintings of children, whether members of his own close-knit family circle or the offspring of his friends, provide glimpses into his private life and may offer hints of his own feelings and attitudes.


From Souvenir to High Art

In the late 1870s Sargent made the transition from student to professional artist. Part of his early strategy for drawing attention to his art was to portray children in ways that either justified his use of avant-garde styles (by softening the potentially jarring impact of those styles) or scraped away the veneer of Victorian sentiment that had reduced children to bland uniformity.

Although his parents were American, Sargent was European in terms of his birth, experience, and outlook. Paris-trained in the atelier of Carolus-Duran and at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the talented young artist easily outstripped his fellow students. Fueled by ambition, he set out to establish himself at the forefront of contemporary art. To do so he displayed his work at influential venues in the major art capitals of Paris, New York, and London-separate cultural settings that required equally separate strategies for success.

Sargent used child imagery to introduce himself to international art audiences; in the process, he revitalized the imagery of the child. His treatment of the subject challenged the conventional view that childhood was a specialty adopted by men of lesser talents or ambition or by women artists, who were thought to be naturally equipped to deal with the theme. Thus, Sargent's use of a marginalized subject -- the child -- was not only unexpected but also critical to shifting childhood from its lowly status as mere souvenir and into the realm of high art.


Sargent's Early Career in the United States [3]

Sargent began to establish himself professionally in the United States in 1878 when he displayed Fishing for Oysters at Cancale in the first exhibition of the New York-based Society of American Artists, whose members were mainly young foreign-trained painters. The Italian-born Sargent had visited the United States by then only once, in 1876, and he would not return until 1887. Still, the sparkling French beach scene aligned him with the liberal aesthetics of the Society, which was considered a rival to the powerful and conservative National Academy of Design.

The following year in 1879 Sargent made a bid for critical attention at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design by showing a single painting, the small Neapolitan Children Bathing. The painting brought him critical praise and allowed him to make his mark in a conservative artistic arena, where other foreign-trained artists of his generation had failed.


Sargent's Early Career in France [4]

Sargent entered the Paris atelier of Carolus-Duran in 1874 and quickly became the French master's star pupil. In 1879, the year he left Carolus-Duran's studio, Sargent marked the occasion by showing a portrait of his teacher at the Paris Salon, France's most important venue for art display. The portrait earned Sargent positive reviews, an honorable mention, and, according to one of his father's letters, six portrait commissions, two of which were probably Jeanne Kieffer and Robert de Cévrieux, both on view here.

Sargent showed paintings at the Salon and other Paris venues that challenged the public view of him as Carolus-Duran's student, mainly by showcasing his ever-widening range of subjects and technical abilities. His growing fame in France in the early 1880s was buoyed by the success of such varied and remarkable paintings as Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron (in 1881), El Jaleo (in 1882), Portraits d'enfants (in 1882 and 1883), and Venetian genre scenes. Sargent's practice of showing paintings of children in alternating years helped to balance his emerging reputation as a painter of the exotic and strange. In addition, his portraits of the Pailleron children and the Boit sisters were unusual: the sitters were portrayed with gravity and emotional force. This new presentation of the child lent increased importance to the subject. But the controversial reception of Madame X (see illustration) at the Salon of 1884 led a disappointed Sargent to seek patronage in England, where he eventually settled in 1886.


Sargent's Early Career in England [5]

In 1885 Sargent set his sights on England after the devastatingly poor reception of Madame X in Paris. He had exhibited occasionally in London since 1882 and knew that this new territory brought its own difficulties -- among them, the insularity of the English art establishment, which was notoriously indifferent, and often antagonistic, to artists whose styles smacked of French influence.

Sargent surely recognized that childhood was still a major subject in English art. This was due in part to the continued influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds's work (Sargent saw the 1884 Reynolds retrospective exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London) and the popularity of paintings by Sir John Everett Millais, who was considered the inheritor of the Reynolds tradition, especially in his paintings of children (see illustration). The paintings of Reynolds and Millais were generally ranked among the highest examples of English art production. At the other end of the scale were the many works by contemporary artists who had embraced the popular taste for vapid, humorous depictions of children, leading critics to complain about the "baby disease" that had infected English art (see illustration).

The paintings in this section show that at this point in his career Sargent used different strategies in his portrayals of English children, sometimes conforming to traditional expectations and sometimes not, but all with the aim of separating his art from the mainstream. By focusing on the appealing subject of childhood, Sargent was able to escape criticism that would otherwise be leveled at him for using an impressionistic style. Two of the works shown here illustrate Sargent's experiments in this area and may be seen as precursors to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, the painting that brought him acclaim when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1887 and purchased that year for the English national collection.


Posing Problems [6]

Youngsters do not commonly possess the experiences and accomplishments that contribute to a fully formed sense of identity -- the kinds of qualities historians often use to analyze the layered meanings of portraiture -- and for this reason, Sargent's portraits of children are often difficult to interpret. He sometimes complicated the matter by stripping his young subjects of child-defining attributes such as toys, books, or pets or by depicting them with expressions or in poses that suggest personal will. We must acknowledge his young sitters as individuals.

Two photographs of a young John Singer Sargent are vivid reminders of the vagaries of posing (see illustrations). The results may be contrary enough to convince us that we see two different individuals: one an uncomfortable little boy standing statue-like and expressionless; the other a more personable little fellow posing with self-conscious grace. Doubtless, the boy changed his poses in response to prompts from his parents or the professional photographer. Sargent's child subjects went through similar, but longer posing sessions from which came a single, final product of the artist's subjective and creative responses to his sitters. Whatever visual "truths" may be suggested by these painted images, it was Sargent who orchestrated the entire effect.

The paintings in this section (which continues beyond the doorway at left) depict sitters who were professional models and those who were not. They invite us to think about the circumstances in which the paintings were made and how the age, experience, and social environment of the sitters inspired Sargent to adjust the ways he showed them. Sargent's adult subjects often found his portrait sittings emotionally and physically exhausting. If posing was an ordeal for adults, what was it like for children, who typically had no control over the process or strong interest in the result? And what was it like for Sargent to paint a child, who was too young to understand the purpose of the process?


Childhood, Aesthetics, and Nationalism

Throughout the 1880s Sargent received mixed reviews for his art. Although few writers denied his enormous talent as a painter, many critics defined his work as "clever" or "superficial," and some potential patrons were put off by what they considered his irreverent, undignified portrayals of his sitters. As a reviewer of his first one-man exhibition (in Boston, in 1888) stated: "Boston propriety has not yet got over the start . . . Sargent's [art] . . . gave it; it fairly jumped at the first sight, and on second thoughts did not know whether it ought to feel really shocked or only amused." Roughly one-quarter of the paintings in the Boston show were portraits of children, among them Caspar Goodrich and Ruth Sears Bacon (on view here). These paintings escaped criticism, partly because Sargent's rapid, summary brushwork seemed suited to child subjects and also because it was (and is) hard for most people to react negatively to youngsters. Sargent's portraits of children from prominent American families helped to ease concerns about his suitability as an artist.

Sargent continued to shape critical and public opinion of his art through child imagery, as seen by the nine paintings he showed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Four of them featured American children and included Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston and Portrait of a Boy (Homer Saint-Gaudens and His Mother).. Critics found parallels between child imagery and the nation's own passage from cultural infancy to maturity. These wholesome representations of American children also helped to calm fears of "degeneration" -- a theory that growth and change, whether in terms of a family, a race, or a nation, was not always marked by progress.

In this sense, Sargent's paintings of children helped to support the optimistic belief that the nation's own progress was positively forecast in the coming generation. For Sargent, who maintained permanent residence in England from 1886 until his death, it meant that his reputation in the United States was securely "domesticated" and "nationalized."


Mothers and Children [7]

Sargent's portraits of mothers and children on view here continue the Grand Manner tradition, as revealed by their large scale, full-length formats, and the generally formal presentation of their sitters. Yet within Sargent's updated Grand Manner style there are clear distinctions of class and nationality, stemming in part from his own reactions to his subjects, the requirements of the commissions, and the settings that the paintings would occupy. For example, Sargent painted the countess of Warwick and her son in a way that intentionally recalls the art of Sir Joshua Reynolds, since the painting would be part of that aristocratic English family's collection of ancestral portraits. In contrast, Sargent's less formal and conventional portrayal of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son may evoke the idea of a plain New England heritage.

Despite their differences, these portraits can be united within the broader theme of the Christian Virgin and Child. Such associations were commonplace in the nineteenth century, as seen in a passage from Estelle M. Hurll's 1895 Child-Life in Art: "The poetry of childhood is full of attractiveness to the artist. . . . The Christ-child has been his highest ideal. All that human imagination could conceive of innocence and purity and divine loveliness has been shown forth in the delineation of the Babe of Bethlehem. The influence of such art has made itself felt upon all child pictures." Though Sargent's portraits do not directly evoke religious doctrine, they often confirmed the divinity of the mother-and-child bond for nineteenth-century audiences.



About 1890 the years bridging childhood and adulthood were the subject of intense study in the United States and Europe. It was believed that adolescence was not only a period of physical change but a stage in human consciousness that paralleled the development of the species itself. The sudden focus on adolescence was due in part to the "lengthening" of childhood, which was brought about by the growing number of labor and education laws. These tended to delay the financial and social independence of young people, or at least those from largely middle- and upper-class urban families.


Genre Painting

The subjects of Sargent's art extended far beyond the boundaries of portrait painting and embraced a broad range of themes that can be seen in his mural paintings, watercolors, and a large body of oils featuring landscapes and figures. The last category is represented by this small group of genre paintings spanning nearly forty years of his career; it shows anonymous people going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. The paintings here are brought together to show the ways in which Sargent focused on childhood as a means to create content.


Images accompanying the didactic panels:

1. Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723­1792), Miss Penelope Boothby, 1788, oil on canvas. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK

2. John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, circa 1867. Private collection

3. John Singer Sargent, Fishing for Oysters at Cancale, 1878, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Miss Mary Appleton, 35.708. Photograph © 2003 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

4. El Jaleo, 1882, oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (originally exhibited as Portraits d'enfants), 1882, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit, 19.124. Photograph © 2003 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Madame X (or Madame Gautreau), 1883­84, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 16.53. All rights reserved

5. Sir John Everett Millais (English, 1829­1896), Lady Peggy Primrose (Lady Margaret Primrose as a Child), circa 1885, oil on canvas. Private collection. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Arthur John Elsley (English, 1860­1952), A Dead-Heat, from Academy Notes 1893, ed. Henry Blackburn (London: Chatto and Windus, 1893), Brooklyn Museum Library Collection; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885­86, oil on canvas. Tate, London. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887. © Tate, London, 2003

6. John Singer Sargent, circa 1860. Private collection; John Singer Sargent, circa 1860. Private collection

7. Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723­1792), Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children, 1777­79, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Image © 2003 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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