Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

The Shifting Definition of Childhood
A child is commonly defined as a boy or a girl under the age of puberty, but the concept of childhood is essentially elastic; it is dependent on place, economic status, religious belief, and other variables having to do with cultural environment. Today the question of the nature of childhood remains unresolved: is it defined by age, physical and mental characteristics, behavior, or a combination of these factors in concert with the cultural variables mentioned above?

At the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes about children changed. Child protection laws and organizations began to multiply in Europe and the United States, along with legislation for free and eventually mandatory public education. These changes reduced the number of children in the workforce, turning them into dependents and reorganizing national and family economies. The increasing separation of children from adult society encouraged the mystification of childhood and was reflected in the economic and medical spheres. In the marketplace, products were designed especially for children, and new specialties in medicine, psychology, and sociology were developed. So great was the burgeoning interest in childhood that some writers designated the dawning twentieth century as the “Age of the Child.”

Sargent’s intense study of the art of the past ensured his knowledge of the history of the iconography of the child and provided him with a basic visual language with which he could modify subject matter according to his artistic aims. It is not known if he was specifically attentive to the social study of childhood, but he did own a first edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s landmark book Emile (1762). Yet Sargent’s awareness of contemporary social shifts (which included the redefinition of childhood) must be presumed, for he was both witness and contributor to the cultural life of his time. What is more, cognizance of such cultural fluctuations was a traditional and essential requirement for a successful portraitist.

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