Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

Posing Problems
Since youngsters do not usually possess the biographical apparatus commonly used by historians to analyze the layered meanings of portraiture—lived experience and accomplishments that contribute to a firmly established sense of identity—Sargent’s portraits of children are often difficult to interpret. He sometimes complicated the matter of “reading” his images of children by stripping them of such common child-defining attributes as toys, books, or pets or by depicting them with expressions or in poses that suggest personal volition. We are obliged to acknowledge his young sitters as individuals.

Numerous accounts attest that Sargent’s adult subjects often flagged under sometimes emotionally fraught and physically grueling portrait sittings. If posing was an ordeal for adults, what was it like for children (who traditionally had neither control in the matter nor vested interest in the result)? Conversely, what was it like for Sargent to paint a child, who was too young to understand the purpose of the process?

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