Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

Mothers and Children
Sargent’s portraits of mothers and children in the exhibition are continuations of the Grand Manner tradition by virtue of such characteristics as large-scale, full-length formats, and the generally formal presentation of the sitters. Yet within the range of Sargent’s updated Grand Manner style, distinctions of class and nationality may be discerned, stemming in part from the artist’s personal reactions to his subjects, the varied requirements of the commissions, and the settings that the paintings would occupy. Thus, for instance, it was appropriate to portray the countess of Warwick and her son in a way that intentionally recalls the art of the eighteenth-century English master Sir Joshua Reynolds, since the painting would be part of the aristocratic English family’s collection of ancestral portraits. In contrast, Sargent’s portrayal of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son in a less formulaic visual language may conjure the idea of a plain New England heritage.

Despite their differences, these portraits can be united within the broader iconography of the Christian Virgin and Child. Such associations were frequently made in the nineteenth century and are exemplified by 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.” Although Sargent’s portraits do not overtly evoke religious doctrine, the images often embraced the meaning of the divinity of the mother-and-child bond for nineteenth-century audiences.

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