Exhibitions: Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children

From Souvenir to High Art
In the late 1870s Sargent made the transition from student to professional artist. This exhibition aims to show that part of his early strategy for attracting critical attention to his art was to portray children in ways that either justified his use of avant-garde styles (by softening the potentially jarring impact of those styles) or in ways that scraped away the veneer of Victorian sentimentality that had reduced children to characterless, saccharine uniformity.

Although he was American by virtue of his parentage, Sargent was European in terms of his birth, experience, and outlook. Paris-trained in the atelier of Carolus-Duran and at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Sargent, prodigiously talented, easily outstripped his fellow students. Fueled by ambition, he set out to establish himself at the forefront of contemporary art. To do so he displayed his work at influential venues in the major art capitals of Paris, New York, and London—separate cultural settings that required equally separate strategies for the guarantee of critical success.

In addition to outlining how Sargent used child imagery in his campaign to introduce himself to international art audiences, this section of the exhibition also focuses on how Sargent revitalized the iconography of the child. His treatment of the subject during a critical phase of his career shows that he was ready to challenge certain assumptions that buttressed academic hierarchies of professionalism—namely that childhood was a specialty usually adopted either by men of lesser talents or ambition or by women artists, who were supposedly naturally equipped to deal with the theme. Thus, Sargent’s use of a marginalized subject—the child—was not only unexpected but also integral to shifting childhood from its lowly status as iconographic souvenir and into the realm of high art.

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