In Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children, the Portland Art Museum has put together a comprehensive look at the career of the famous portraitist as exemplified by his paintings of children.
The exhibit, which continues through September 11, might be seen as an historical record of the changing views of childhood and the developing personality from infancy through adolescence. It might also be seen as the wistful imaginary family life of the never married, childless artist. Or, as an object lesson in how talent, drive, and commercial sensibilities combined to create one of the leading icons of nineteenth century art.
Sargent, perhaps best known for his Portrait of Madame X,1884, is also famous for one of the best-loved images of children, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886. He found a revival of commercial success often hinged on images of children. After the scandal of Madame X took him into self-exile in England, he was able to charm the British upper-crust, and divert their attention from his sketchy, controversial impressionistic style, with images such as Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884.
Garden Study of the Vickers Children, 1884
Sargent began his career as a portraitist by drawing the models closest at hand: his siblings. Some of these images are included in this exhibition, as is the type of painting that caused him to finally abandon portraiture in favor of landscapes and murals. Little Ruth Bacon's mother was so emotional in both praise and condemnation as the painting progressed, and Ruth as uncontrollable as any toddler, that the artist took advantage of Mom's absence one day to hastily sketch in the background, call it good, and depart.
Portrait of Ruth Sears Bacon, 1887
Adolescents challenged Sargent to see beyond their often veiled emotions. Sometimes, it seems he didn't try, but only painted the veil as it was shown to him. Elsie Palmer might have been a model for Edvard Munch, with her almost depressive stare and pale complexion. Also known as Young Lady in White, this painting draws one in with fine brush work and classical symmetry, but hidden emotions. It is also an example of how Sargent continued to alternate academic finesse with impressionistic painterliness, as in the Vickers scene.
Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, 1889-90
Overall, this show is successful on many levels: as cultural history, with examples of portraits in the grand tradition, as well as genre scenes and examples of the use of professional child models; as art history, as seen in the progression of one successful career; and as a chronicle of child psychology, and the changing role of the child within the family. It exemplifies the phrase "Great Expectations," as one can see a visual representation of the potential that is inherent in every child.