Fashioning Childhood

John Haber
in New York City

John Singer Sargent Paints Children

When John Singer Sargent, paints a child, adults hover everywhere. They are the parents—most often mothers, of course—putting on display for all to see their love, their duty, or their glamour. They are the unseen fathers, men whose wealth commissioned full-length portraits even for their sons and daughters, men whose status in society demanded it.

They are the adults these children were to become, shaped by a life of privilege and their few moments indeed away from its spotlight. They are the adults their parents expected them to become, carrying on roles and responsibilities known by heart. They are the adults the children wanted or feared to become, almost from birth. They are the actual young adults, reveling in the discovery of increasing freedom and sexual magnetism.  John Singer Sargent's Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron (Des Moines Art Center, 1881)

Posing for the past

And then there is another adult, Sargent himself. He is the cosmopolitan artist who knew and respected every one of these roles and expectations. He is the self-styled man of the world who understood when a sitter's name—and his own—turned on pushing those roles to their extreme.

He is the professional who learned the hard way what happens when outrage follows. He is the painter who records and, not incidentally, intensifies it all. Fashionable photographers after Richard Avedon would recognize that compulsion.

For the Brooklyn Museum, he is something else as well—a penetrating psychologist and cultural critic. In a show of Sargent's images of children, the museum argues that his portraits and genre scenes helped to define modern ideals of childhood. It shows him seeking out and questioning the shrinking space left for innocence by late Victorian culture.

That theme resonates today. Think of the endless baby pictures passed around by digital camera and the Web. Then think of the constant assault of sexually charged material that kids see everywhere. Think, too, of the sheer proliferation of images, so that consumer choice becomes a choice of what role to play. Cold Sargent, like Francisco de Goya and his Red Boy, have got there first?

In a room just past the main exhibition, the museum invites children to pose for the camera. It challenges kids today to see themselves as Sargent's sitters and then to think about the exhibition freshly. The photos, stuck all over the wall, may or may not resemble Sargent's work. However, they look very much like a special advertising section of the Sunday Times.

The museum outlines conflicting narratives of childhood—from family values to lost innocence, from worldly temptation to worldly success. It sees them as coming into focus only in Sargent's lifetime. And it sees art, especially his art, as a major player in sharpening the focus.

Seeing the future

The museum sees itself as charting a parallel evolution. It means not just the evolution of childhood, but also of the imagining of childhood and of Sargent himself. Like Sargent's portraits, the exhibition asks one to keep track of a lot of players.

Victorians, say the curators, inherited, first, the Enlightenment concept of the blank slate. For John Locke and others, the museum argues, the untutored mind awaited sensual experience. Around that contrast of innocence and experience, Romanticism had then written a moral saga, of a progressive fall from grace. Last, the late Victorian economy—or at least its leisure class—added an extension of childhood, adolescence, with a little extra time for self-exploration and self-definition.

If this sounds like an awful lot of baggage for one exhibition and for a terrific but not entirely radical painter, it is. Deconstruction describes texts as readerly, meaning that one simply absorbs them, or writerly. In other words, truly fine art draws one in to the point that one actively engages in making meaning. This exhibition is readerly in the extreme, even more than shows at the Met, if one can imagine that. It basically amounts to a single, ample gallery, but its lengthy wall labels make it a feel humongous. They also can keep visitors from looking at much of anything.

Not infrequently, the labels grow tendentious. See that sad, displaced child peering through a rail in central Europe? Does he really express the American-born artist's own displacement and his shifting fortunes? Or does it just show another side of American realism, in his powers of observation and empathy? See that young man with great expectations? How anxious is he, and how penetrating a social critic does that make the painter?

For good measure, the museum throws in capsule biographies of each sitter's later life. Do they really prove anything more than Sargent's limits, as a man enmeshed in upper-class society? One can try to see an entire future in a child's eyes, but every parent does that, and few succeed.

At times, the museum even argues at cross purposes with itself. Along with social and family histories, yet a third set of labels poses questions. What does a portrait say about families and their relationships? Like the distracting, scalloped paint job on one wall, they come with the Brooklyn Museum's flashy remodeling and its commitment to public education. Still, they risk sheer confusion. Here one curator is rooting portrait conventions in the particulars of a time and artist. Meanwhile, another looks at Sargent in a more traditional manner, as one case of portraiture down through the centuries.

Knowing where to look

If that sounds discouraging, I can imagine Sargent taking it all in stride, like the demands of any other patron. The show, he might cheerfully agree, works. It works because it takes seriously a painter that critics even back then often found insubstantial. It works because, regardless of the answers, it puts plenty of good questions on the table. It works because today one does indeed find adolescence back on the table, too. That twentieth-century detour into Norman Rockwell's America did not last so long after all.

Above all, it works because the paintings respond to questions. As I said at the outset, behind every image of childhood lies a multiplicity of adult motives. Sargent's portraiture thrives on multiple centers of attention.

They start with his ever-active brush and his still-fashionable love of red and black. In a group portrait, the characters form a pyramid, but a tall figure on its right almost threatens to get up and leave. A child's dark eyes at the center almost holds it all together. But finally an even blacker figure, a dog, almost invisible at first, steals the show.

Cecil Harrison may stand in confident, three-quarter view, like a traditional English full-length portrait. The boy's flush cheeks, dark eyes, and red lips lend him immediacy, but they also suggest psychological depth. His look off to the side no doubt derives from Joshua Reynolds and British portraiture in the Grand Manner. Yet it signals not superiority to a mere artist, but a fixation one wants desperately to decipher. His pale hands, thumbs thrust in his pockets, project a boyish swagger, but one remains aware of how hard he works at his role.

Sargent grounds a sitter in his social class, but he takes away any solid ground beneath one's feet. A strong, frontal light flatters Harrison but also flattens him. Fluttering, red brushwork on the wall behind thrusts him unnaturally forward, and it accentuates his looming shadow. In a frontal portrait, a girl's delicate white dress, the decorative wood paneling behind her, and her fixed stare right through the viewer make her float in front of the canvas. She seems doubly haunted, by the childhood she is leaving behind and by something more ghostlike in her future.

When adults turn up, the multiple centers of attention can become serious conflicts of interest. In a birthday scene, one sees first the dark, ill-defined shape of the father. Only then does one notice the mother, massive and dominant, cutting the cake. Finally one spots the child, off to the side, blowing out the candles, one year older now and lit from below by the flames. Remember as a kid holding a flashlight below your chin? Growing up is spooky.

The theater of innocence

These renditions of innocence and experience do not follow a Romantic chronology. A child tries on multiple guises, and neither the sitter nor the viewer knows for sure which came first. In a portrait not in the show, of Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children, the three share a decidedly tilted stage.

When two children play together in a garden, the curators see it as standing for a lost Eden and so for childhood. However, they are watering a plant, just the kind of toil associated with the fate of humanity since the Fall. In turn, the vine that they are nurturing, the other plants behind, and the grass beneath their feet blend together like wallpaper. The green, patterned surface recalls the influence of Edouard Manet and Japanese art. It also undermines the garden's physical reality. For these kids, perhaps for any kids, Eden never existed.

Often Sargent puns on the props of childhood and adulthood. Caspar Goodrich wears a sailor suit, but he takes his name from his father, an admiral. Perhaps he borrowed his commanding pose, seated with crossed arms, from his father, too.

Edouard Pailleron broods in black, while his younger sister Marie-Louise, in white, sits in front of him, at very the edge of the bench, her feet not quite touching the ground, another ghost. Flashing yellows and reds consume the wall behind them, like fire. If the pair resemble Hamlet and Ophelia, they grew up in the theater, as son and daughter of a French dramatist. If the boy resembles a puppeteer learning the extent of his powers, Sargent himself was turning twenty.

Sargent loved painting as theater too much to skip this kind of drama. The painter of Madame X had too provocative a personality anyway. He could never turn away from the darker, more scandalous side of coming of age. However, he had too great an identification with society to see it as solely oppressive. He certainly had too great an empathy for children not to share their thrill at playing with identities and discovering independence.

Sargent also knew tradition and art too well. A Renaissance artist would have recognized the paradox of tenderness and responsibility. In the fifteenth century, when Jesus sits erect beside Mary, one sees a child in need of maternal affection, but one sees a god on his throne, too. When the infant lies asleep before a worshipful Madonna by Giovanni Bellini or Piero di Cosimo, his pose foretells his death as well. I remembered that duality when I saw a polished early sketch of Sargent's. In his sister's sleeping head, one senses both brotherly love and an artist's icy detachment.

Choosing sides

So how anxious are these portraits? Sargent makes it easy to take sides. He knew and learned from the avant-garde. An expatriate his whole life, he knew the meaning of exile, and he eventually largely abandoned portraiture for landscape. However, he does not fit neatly on a time line from Manet to Modernism, any more than James McNeil Whistler's fashion plates. A bit like Oscar Wilde, he enjoys risk, but he keeps coming back for the applause. He keeps hoping for acceptance.

And critics do take sides. In a recent screed, Roger Kimball derides a scholarly view of Sargent's most famous children's portrait, unfortunately not in Brooklyn. How can the daughters of Edward Darley Boit stand for anything but flattery? How could Sargent forget their station in life and the constraints of a wealthy patron? How can a critic forget the girls' perfect comportment or the costly, imported vase beside them?

The Brooklyn Museum chooses sides, too. It pleads for an age of anxiety behind late Victorian and modern childhood. In debates over art and values today, those are fighting words.

No doubt the Boit group portrait, in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, caters to past and present. Sargent shows every bit the ambition of artist and patron. One sees it even in the shadowy chamber, which competes with the greatest children's portrait ever, in Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. One sees it in the influence once again of Manet and Asia. Think of the Chinese vase itself. Think of the dizzying arrangement of walls behind the children, cut off where one least expects it.

However, nothing can erase the unsettling puzzle of the girls in that cavernous interior, any more than one can stop trying to decipher the mirror reflection in the Velázquez. Nothing can put a face back on the doll in the hands of the girl in the foreground or close the distance between her and her sisters. Nothing can keep the girl standing beside the vase more or less her own height from looking ridiculously small, as if she had had a taste of Alice's mushroom. The parallel between her and a beautiful possession, not to mention one from an exotic culture, grows more unsettling the longer one looks, and look one does.

Sargent lets mothers feed their children, reach out to them, read to them, or read dutifully while they sit. He lets children take pride in their watering can and crossed arms. He likes the restlessness he gets from making them pose for hours, but he respects them enough to take their feelings seriously. In his most casual and perhaps most touching portraits, children—all the way from infancy through adolescence—really do strike poses out of teen magazines today.

Whose expectations?

Sargent may never look less of a lightweight than in Brooklyn. And the origins of adolescence have rarely felt as urgent, as recent, or as strange. Yet the exhibition sets history aside in its own way, too.

Its title, "Great Expectations," captures well those multiple pressures on children. One could almost overlook that the Dickens novel of the same name appeared only five years after Sargent's birth. It belongs to an older generation. In fact, it belongs to a whole other class conflict. It describes a boy who at first faces apprenticeship instead of adolescence. It tells how sudden wealth and dashed hopes only reinforce the harsh laws of English society.

Perhaps both sides want the lines between status and rebellion, the establishment and the avant-garde, more reliable than they ever can be. Kimball, an influential conservative columnist and editor, might as well be asking how a Massachusetts liberal can claim sensitivity and compassion. The more he begs to keep politics out of art, the more his politics take over the scene.

Dickens's Pip finds Estella proud, insulting, and an awakening of desire. Kimball might find himself squarely on her side. Dickens sees both sides, and Sargent does, too. Miss Havisham's clocks have stopped, but Pip and Estella have to grow up in the end.

Real society, not least among the powerful, comes filled with pressures and contradictions. Real art comes with political and social insights inseparable from exploring its own ties to the past and future. Sargent does just that, and he does it surprisingly well. It makes sense for a man who loved women and children but will never, ever be a family man.

The Romantics hardly compared growing up to tarnishing a blank slate anyway. William Wordsworth, for one, described a mind's active encounter with nature—the same encounter in cloud studies by John Constable or in nineteenth-century artists of an expanding America. When the Brooklyn Museum sees images and people reshaping each other, from Sargent's portraits to the photographs in the back room, it is on to something.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children" ran through January 16, 2005, at The Brooklyn Museum.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME