JOHN SINGER SARGENT: Portrait of a Boy, c.1890

In December 1889, the expatriate artist John Singer Sargent, accompanied by his younger sister Violet, arrived from London at New York harbor. Not yet thirty-four, Sargent was approaching the highpoint of his fame on both sides of the Atlantic as a portraitist.
His previous American visit, an eight-month trip undertaken in 1887–1888, had resulted in an enthusiastic reception, many new commissions, and the promise of future contacts in Boston, Newport, and New York.

Like Gilbert Stuart before him (see George Washington, Lansdown Portrait, c. 1796), Sargent painted formal portraits for the Gilded Age’s patrician class in the manner of European aristocratic portraiture. He also brought with him a fresh, new way to depict a subject that was popular in both England and the United States—children—at a time when childhood was being singled out as a critical period in human development (and in national progress). Because children were understood to be the direct link to the future, they warranted special attention. From the widespread manufacturing of special books, toys, and clothing to child protection laws, the later nineteenth century ushered in what writer Sadakichi Hartmann called, in a 1907 article for Cosmopolitan magazine, the “age of the child.”

Dismissing his contemporaries’ sentimental approach to childhood as a period of lost innocence, Sargent approached his youthful sitters directly, painting them naturalistically and with a keen, psychologically penetrating eye. His many portraits of the young heirs of America’s upper class also helped to further the artist’s career, pleasing conservative critics and reassuring future patrons who might harbor some lingering doubts as to whether they wanted wanted to submit themselves to Sargent’s forceful brushwork
and bravura technique.

Sargent’s portrait of the young Homer Saint-Gaudens, the son of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Robert Shaw Memorial, c. 1884 – 1897), and his mother Augusta, a cousin of Winslow Homer (Veteran in a New Field, c. 1865), is an intimate portrait for a friend, not a commission that paid the bills. Sargent first encountered Saint-Gaudens in Paris in 1878. When the artists met again in New York in 1890, Saint-Gaudens expressed interest in sculpting an image of Violet, and the painting was done in the spirit of an exchange. Nonetheless, the fact that Sargent preferred a generic title, Portrait of a Boy, to the specific name of the child, and excluded his mother’s name entirely may indicate the artist’s desire to elevate his depiction of Homer Saint-Gaudens to a universal statement about the nature of boys (or perhaps just American ones).

Portrait of a Boy by John Singer Sargent, c. 1890

In Portrait of a Boy, ten-year-old Homer confronts the artist and viewer head-on and eye to eye with a bored, yet penetrating glance, while behind him, and painted in a more summary manner, Augusta is absorbed in reading. Homer is dressed (uncomfortably,
it appears) in a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” suit, an outfit based on the title character from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wildly popular, serialized story of Cedric, an American boy who, through Yankee ingenuity and the wisdom imparted by his mother, was able to lay
claim to his aristocratic English heritage. Cedric’s costume, derived from the attire worn by Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy of c.1770, was so popular with mothers that, by the turn of the century, wearing it became synonymous with being a “mama’s boy.”

Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1770

Homer, however, wearing his fancy suit, does not appear to be the obedient child listening to his mother’s every word. We know from Homer’s adult recollections of these sittings that Augusta was vainly attempting to entertain her son with the story of a naval battle from the War of 1812. Sargent expressed the boy’s impatience and nervous energy not only through his pose but also through the structure of the composition. The child slumps sideways in the ornate studio chair. And while his right foot turns languidly inward, his left foot is braced against the rung, ready to spring. The latent energy of his spread, bent fingers matches the complexity of the swirling pattern of the red carpet, and this unease is intensified by Homer’s pose, which is at a slight angle to both the viewer and to his mother.

As with Sargent’s more ambitious pictures, the portrait of Homer and his mother was conceived with an eye to enriching the painter’s reputation. Critics were quick to praise the
immediacy of the subject: “The exquisite truth of its pose and the rare vitality of every line of the body, not less than the beautiful face itself reveal the power of a master.” The painting won a gold medal at the Art Club of Philadelphia the year it was painted, and was one of the works Sargent chose to exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

February 7, 2012 PowerPoint John Singer Sargent Portrait of a Boy, 1890

Have a good week! -Mrs. S

 

 

 

 

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