| Great Expectations |
By Barbara Dayer Gallati
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An excerpt from Great Expectations
An Introduction to John Singer Sargent's Paintings of Children
Barbara Dayer Gallati
Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children explores a category of subject matter that recurs throughout Sargent's oeuvrethe child. It is admittedly difficult to reconcile the fact that the artist who painted the stunning Madame X is also the artist who, just a few years before, painted the small children on the stairway in Ricordi di Capri. But the very frequency with which Sargent depicted childrenin portraits and in genre paintingsdemands investigation if only to answer the question why? If we believe Charles Merrill Mount, then we need go no further, for the "passel of 'brats'" Sargent painted in France, England, and the United States functioned merely as audition pieces for parents who "wanted to see the results of a harmless experiment before risking their own portraits." Mount's proposition, however, presents far too simplistic an answer, one that is easily contradicted by the facts surrounding the paintings themselves, some of which, including Neapolitan Children Bathing, Edouard and Marie-Louise Bailleron, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, are undisputed milestones in Sargent's career. Moreover, Sargent's paintings of children are unlike those of his contemporaries, an observation that prompts a series of questions whose answers depend not only on what can be discovered about these works specifically but also on the ideologies contributing to the redefinition of childhood that permeated fin-de-siècle European and American cultures and culminated in the new century's designation as the "Century of the Child."
The title of this book and the exhibition it accompanies owes an obvious debt to Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations (1861). Often considered among the finest of the Victorian author's works, it is one of many in Dickens's oeuvre that focuses on children. Driven by a detailed narrative filled with action and ironic turns of events, Great Expectations traces the life of Philip Pirrup (called Pip) from boyhood to manhood as it was shaped by the promise of material wealth from an anonymous benefactor. The lesson of the tale rests in the triumph of honest work over ill-gotten gains, a consequence of which is that Pip's "great expectations" can be read as analogues of hopes for a prosperous future (in both the moral and material spheres). By extension, the future-oriented meaning of "expectation" attaches to a facet of childhood that embraces, among other things, promise. In this sense, then, "great expectations" signals that Sargent's paintings of children will be investigated here in terms of how they gratified or thwarted a set of expectations associated with childhood as it was represented in art at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. At the same time this book explores how Sargent deployed child imagery to advance his own professional standing, the uncalculated result of which helped to reposition childhood in the visual arts, taking it to a higher plane in the prevailing hierarchy of subject matter.
No less important is the provocative role that many of these child subjects take on in seeming to illuminate or intersect with Sargent's feelings about his own childhood and family life. In this regard some uncommissioned works offer intriguing scenarios on which to stage speculation about Sargent's attitudes. Perhaps no better example exists than The Birthday Party (or Fête Familiale), a painting whose essence lodges in the varied expectations of the family members of Sargent's friend and Paris neighbor, the painter Albert Besnard (1849-1934), as they are shown celebrating the birthday of their eldest son, Robert. The informal domesticity of this conversation piece veils the psychological complexity of the subject, which, through compositional means, implies both Sargent's and the viewer's participation in this family party. This impression of inclusion is primarily conferred by the abruptly cropped table that "leaves room" for other guests just outside the pictorial space and is energized by the view across the glittering collection of still-life elements to the boy's brilliantly illuminated face. Young Robert's expression of rapt anticipation reminds us of the thrilling eventfulness of such "small" family rituals that placed us, the children that we were, at the center of attention and rewarded us for simply achieving yet another year. Sargent also directs us, again through the agency of light, to the profile portrait of Charlotte Dubray Besnard (1855-1931), whose facial contours gain added prominence by virtue of their placement against the shadowy form of her husband, who surveys the birthday ritual from a slightly detached position. A picture of maternal solicitude, Charlotte Besnard is caught in the motion of solemnly and delicately serving her son's anniversary treat. Her matronly bulk is visually connect with her son's slight figure by her extended armsfirmly molded horizontal shapes that at once stabilize the composition and seem to stress the maternal bond and her status as primary nurturer in the boy's daily routine. Albert Besnard's position in the scherme similarly hints at the family relationships in that his abstracted, blurred presence may be interpreted as a sign of his secondary role in this stage of his son's emotional and physical development. Nonetheless, Besnard's stance unmistakably denotes paternal pride and authority as he presides over the occasion. What is more, the union of parental concern is implied by the overlapping figures of the couple, intimating their shared expectations and hopes for their child. Years later Besnard fondly recalled the painting, pronouncing the work a "precious souvenir" that enabled him and his wife to relive the childhood of their son who, sadly, predeceased them in the fighting of World War I. Besnard's comments, although deeply personalized, correspond to the retrospective cast of mind often created by the experience of looking at any child and underscore the peculiar capacity of childhood to project our thoughts into the past as well as into the future.
Sargent's apparently deliberate care in devising this composition encourages the iconographic reading set out here. The informality of the family gathering notwithstanding, the arrangement of the figures yields a set of relationships that are far from casual and suggests that, in the process of composing this scene (probably witnessed firsthand), Sargent recaptured memories (or even constructed desired memories) of his own cllildhood. If this is so, is it possible to see in the conjunction of the dominant maternal figure and the vague, faceless paternal form (the latter of which is outside the child's view) echoes of Sargent's family life? Is Sargent's depiction of the mother, who presents her son with the eye-filling spectacle of the festive cake for his consumption, a restoration of his own mother, who opened his eyes to the sensuous delights of visual excitement? These questions will never be answered, but the narrative evoked by this image resonates strongly with the description of Sargent's early family life provided in Richard Ormond's essay in this volume.
Excerpted from Great Expectations , by Barbara Dayer Gallati . Copyright (c) 2004 by Brooklyn Museum. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top