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Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

June 18 - September 11, 2005


 (above: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Neapolitan Children Bathing, 1879. Oil on canvas. 10 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1955.852)


The Portland Art Museum will present Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children, the first exhibition to examine the role of child imagery in the art of one of the foremost painters of the late nineteenth century.  Opening June 18, 2005, the exhibition of approximately 42 works on loan from important domestic and foreign collections includes commissioned portraits, portraits of family members and friends, genre paintings, and works portraying professional child models. (right: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Dorothy, 1900. Oil on canvas. 24 1/8 x 19 3/4 inches, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Leland Fikes Foundation, Inc.)

Although Sargent is perhaps best known for his dashingly painted high-style society portraits, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) created a significant number of children's portraits and genre paintings featuring children -- works whose subjects often do not conform to popular perceptions of his work and are unlike the often romantic depictions of children created by most of his contemporaries.  The exhibition examines Sargent's child imagery in light of the broader cultural trends that simultaneously contributed to the redefinition of childhood in fin-de-siècle Europe and North America.

This innovative look at a discrete segment of Sargent's output will reveal that paintings of children represent undisputed milestones in his career and that he deliberately displayed them at strategic moments to reorient critical and public opinion of his work.   In the United States, his images of children created an audience eager to claim him as American despite his foreign birth and training, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and notoriously "irreverent" portrayals of his adult sitters. In France, much of his early success was built on uniquely arresting portraits of children that not only declared his professional independence from his famed instructor, Carolus-Duran, but also helped to demonstrate the ever-widening range of his thematic interests.  In England, his child subjects often evoked romantic associations linking childhood with innocence and, as a result, veiled the impact of his avant-garde techniques, making his paintings palatable to audiences who otherwise resisted the incursion of contemporary French aesthetics into the insular English art world.

In addition to including some of Sargent's most famous and noteworthy canvases (among them, Essie, Ruby and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer and Garden Study of the Vickers Children), the exhibition will display fine, little-known paintings, some of which have not been exhibited since the first decades of the twentieth century. Executed over a four-decade period, they range from the first known oil portrait by Sargent (a circa 1875 portrait of his five-year-old sister Violet) to The Tyrolese Crucifix, a genre subject begun in the Austrian Tyrol during the early months of World War I.


(above: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Ruth Sears Bacon, 1887. Oil on canvas. 48 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mrs. Austin Cheney, 1975.92)


About John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a leading force in the revival of society portraiture in Britain and America at the end of the nineteenth century.  While best known for his portraits of fashionable and wealthy elite on both sides of the Atlantic, he also gained deserved respect for his landscape and genre subjects, as well as for his work as a watercolorist and mural painter.  Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, slightly more than a year after his parents had moved to Europe from Philadelphia.  The family traveled the Continent extensively throughout his youth, and early on he exercised his desire to draw and paint under the stimulus of the Old World atmosphere in which he was raised.  His principal art training was from the Parisian master Carolus-Duran (1837-1917) with whom he studied from 1874 to about 1879.  He officially marked the end of his student days with the display of his now famous portrait of Carolus-Duran at the 1879 Paris Salon. (left: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884. Oil on canvas. 54 1/4 x 35 7/8 inches, Flint Institute of Art, gift of Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust (Via Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards) 1972.47)

Although he maintained permanent residence abroad, Sargent considered himself an American and, in addition to intermittently working in the United States, was actively involved in the American arts through commissions, exhibition and organizational affiliations, and friendships.  In the early 1880s Sargent was headquartered in Paris, where he was in contact with the major artistic and literary figures of the era, including Henry James, Claude Monet, and Giovanni Boldini.  Following the disastrous reception of his painting Madame X at the 1884 Paris Salon, however, he spent increasing amounts of time in England and, by 1886, he had settled in London.

The strength of his talent kept him above the often petty political divisions that defined the art world of his time, as witnessed by his memberships in such varied and often competing organizations as the Society of American Artists, the National Academy of Design, the London Royal Academy, and the New English Art Club.  His work was included in nearly every major international exhibition from the late 1870s until his last years and almost invariably won official acclaim.  He was decorated by the French, Belgian, and German governments, and received honorary degrees from, among others, Harvard, Oxford, and Yale universities.

Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and is made possible in part through the generosity of Jan and Warren Adelson, with additional assistance from the Great Expectations Leadership Gifts Committee.  The Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities has granted an indemnity for this project. In Portland, the Curator for the exhibit is Margaret Bullock, Associate Curator for American Art, Portland Art Museum

Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children, an exhibition catalogue written by Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, will be available in the Museum Shop.


(above: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Essie, Ruby, and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer, 1902. Oil on canvas. 61 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches, Tate, London, presented by the widow and family of Asher Wertheimer in accordance with his wishes. © Tate, London, 2003)



Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these articles and essay:

from Harvard University:

from WGBH/Boston:

from The Art Bulletin:

from ArtForum:

from Magazine Antiques:

a narrated slideshow from Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent's Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman), narrated by museum director Elizabeth Broun.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

John Singer Sargent from Wikipedia


and these videos:

The WGBH/Boston Forum Network includes a number of videos on Art and Architecture. Partners include a number of Boston-area museums, colleges, universities and other cultural organizations.

Boston Athenaeum partnered with the Forum Network for a series of lectures on American art by David Dearinger, who is Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum. An art historian and curator, he received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a specialty in nineteenth-century American art. Titles include:

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston partnered with the Forum Network for:

an Arts4All Ltd. video. Go to ArtsPass > Video on Demand > Arts Pass Library and select "Sargent, John Singer (1856-1925) (Visual Arts) (20:23) John Singer Sargent, the American expatriate known for his elegant portraits, created more than 900 oils and over 2,000 watercolors along with countless charcoal sketch-portraits and endless pencil drawings, easily making him the most prolific of American artists and one of the most successful portrait painters in both England and America. Written by Paul Foster."


and these books:

Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, By Warren Adelson, Donna Janis, Elaine Kilmurray, Richard Ormond, and Elizabeth Oustinoff, Published 1997. ISBN: 978-0-7892-0384-7. (online book excerpt available from Abbeville Press) (right: catalogue front cover courtesy Abbeville Press)

John Singer Sargent, By Carter Ratcliff, Published 2001, ISBN: 978-0-7892-0748-7. (online book excerpt available from Abbeville Press)

rev. 3/26/07

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Portland Art Museum in Resource Library.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

John Singer Sargent: Outside the Frame is a 57 minute 1999 Jackson Frost television documentary produced by WETA-TV, Washington, filmed in high-definition format, and narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. As the foremost portraitist of his time, Sargent exquisitely captured in oil and watercolor the spirit of the Gilded Age. This close look at his work reveals much more than the faces of the wealthy. Emmy winner, Jackson Frost, reexamines Sargent's creations including landscapes, figures, and murals and highlights the paintings El Jaleo, Madame X, Carnation, Lily and others. At the height of his career, Sargent was the most admired portraitist in England and America, but he was dismissed after his death as merely a commercial artist. Distributed by Home Vision . ASIN: 0780023064 John Singer Sargent: Outside the Frame is available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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