Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

Family Matters
Regardless of medium, most formal 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 the welcome receipt of photographs and the enclosure of recent pictures of his own children. The Sargents’ reliance on photographs to preserve family connections likely awakened the young John Singer Sargent to the purposes of portraiture, helping him to understand that a portrait is more than a likeness of a specific person: it has the potential to fulfill multiple, usually overlapping desires ranging from the aesthetic, documentary, social, and economic to the emotional.

By most standards Sargent had an unusual childhood. His parents moved constantly, rarely remaining in one place for more than a few months at a time. Despite giving him little opportunity for formal schooling or developing sustained friendships, this lifestyle provided Sargent with a broad education founded on his exposure to the cultural riches of Europe. His love for drawing was especially encouraged by his mother, who was an amateur watercolorist.

Despite Sargent’s unconventional childhood and lifelong bachelorhood, the facts of his biography and his paintings reveal that he valued and sometimes sought the domestic comforts offered by familial 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 traces of his own feelings and attitudes.

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