Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

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.” Approximately one-quarter of the paintings in the Boston show were portraits of children, among them Caspar Goodrich. These paintings escaped adverse criticism, partly because Sargent’s rapid, summary brushwork seemed appropriate for child subjects and also because it was (and is) admittedly difficult for most people to react negatively to youngsters. Thus, Sargent’s portraits of children from prominent American families helped to counteract anxieties about his suitability as an artist.

Sargent continued to reorient critical and public opinion of his art through child imagery, as witnessed by the nine paintings that represented him at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, four of which 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 evolutionary passage from cultural infancy to maturity. Additionally, these wholesome representations of American children helped to allay growing fears of “degeneration”—a theory that evolutionary change, whether in terms of a family, a race, or a nation, was not always a progressive process.

In this context Sargent’s depictions of children helped to support the optimistic belief that the nation’s evolutionary 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.

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