John Singer Sargent(1856 – 1925) Portrait of a Boy c. 1890
John Singer Sargent • Before Sargent's birth, his father FitzWilliam was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia 1844-1854. • After John's older sister died at the age of two, his mother Mary (née Singer) suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover.
The Sargent family remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. • Though based in Paris, Sargent's parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.
Sargent’s Birth • While Mary was pregnant, they stopped in Florence, Italy because of a choleraepidemic. • Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife's entreaties to remain abroad.
They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. • They generally avoided society and other Americans except for friends in the art world. • Four more children were born abroad, of whom only two lived past childhood.
Though his father was a patient teacher of basic subjects, young Sargent was a rambunctious child, more interested in outdoor activities than his studies. • As his father wrote home, "He is quite a close observer of animated nature."
His mother was quite convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. • Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. • Sargent's mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator.
Early on, his mother gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. • Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. • FitzWilliam had hoped that his son's interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.
At thirteen, his mother reported that John "sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. • If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.“ • At age thirteen, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter.
Though his education was far from complete, Sargent grew up to be a highly literate and cosmopolitan young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature. • He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. • At seventeen, Sargent was described as "willful, curious, determined and strong" (after his mother) yet shy, generous, and modest (after his father). • He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, as he wrote in 1874, "I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian."
Training • An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed as the school was re-organizing at the time, so after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran. • The young French portrait artist, who had a meteoric rise, was noted for his bold technique and modern teaching methods, and his influence would be pivotal to Sargent during the period from 1874-1878
In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. • He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective, and gained a silver prize
He also spent much time in self-study, drawing in museums and painting in a studio he shared with James Carroll Beckwith. • He became both a valuable friend and Sargent's primary connection with the American artists abroad. • Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat
Sargent was the star student in short order. • It was noted in 1874 that Sargent was "one of the most talented fellows to ever come along; his drawings are like the old masters, and his color is equally fine.“ • Sargent's excellent command of French and his superior talent made him both popular and admired. • Sargent would meet giants of the art world, including Degas, Rodin, Monet, and Whistler.
In December 1889, the expatriate artist John Singer Sargent, accompanied by his younger sister Violet, arrived from London at New York harbor.
Portraitist • Not yet thirty-four, Sargent was approaching the highpoint of his fame on both sides of the Atlantic as a portraitist.
His previous American visit, an eight-month trip undertaken in 1887–1888, had resulted in an enthusiastic reception, many new commissions, and the promise of future contacts in Boston, Newport, and New York.
By the turn of the 20th century, many of the nation's wealthiest families were summering in Newport, including the Vanderbilts, Astors and Widener family who constructed the largest "cottages", such as The Breakers (1895) and Miramar. • Many of the homes were designed by the New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who himself kept a house in Newport.
They came for a brief social season to grand, gilded mansions with elaborate receiving, dining, music and ballrooms, but with few bedrooms, since the guests were expected to have cottages of their own.
Newport was known for being the city of some of the "Summer White Houses" during the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Today, many mansions continue in private use. • Others, including Hammersmith Farm, the mansion from which Jackie Kennedy was married, are now open to tourists as house museums.
Still others were converted into academic buildings for Salve Regina College in the 1930s when the owners could no longer afford their tax bills.
Like Gilbert Stuart before him, (remember George Washington’s portrait that we studied) Sargent painted formal portraits for the Gilded Age’s patrician class in the manner of European aristocratic portraiture.
He also brought with him a fresh, new way to depict a subject that was popular in both England and the United States --- —children— at a time when childhood was being singled out as a critical period in human development (and in national progress).
Historically this is a new concept.. • Because now children were understood to be the direct link to the future, they warranted special attention.
From the widespread manufacturing of special books, toys, and clothing, • To child protection laws, • The later nineteenth century ushered in what a 1907 article in Cosmopolitan magazine called the, “age of the child.”
Child Protection Laws • Let’s take a moment and discuss how children were a major work force in America at this time. • These were not the children of the Upper Class.
In the late 1700's and early 1800's, power-driven machines replaced hand labor for the making of most manufactured items. • Factories began to spring up everywhere, first in England and then in the United States. • The owners of these factories found a new source of labor to run their machines — children. • Operating the power-driven machines did not require adult strength, and children could be hired more cheaply than adults. • By the mid-1800's, child labor was a major problem.
Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. • Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. • The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coal mines. The working children had no time to play or go to school, and little time to rest. They often became ill.
The Mill: Some boys and girls were so small they had to climb up on to the spinning frame to mend broken threads and to put back the empty bobbins. Bibb Mill No. 1. Macon, Georgia.
Newsies: Out after midnight selling extras. There were many young boys selling very late. Youngest boy in the group is 9 years old. Harry, age 11, Eugene and the rest were a little older. Washington, D.C.
Miners: View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boys' lungs. A kind of slave-driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
The Mill: One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mill. She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides - 48 cents a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, "I don't remember," then added confidentially, "I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same." Out of 50 employees, there were ten children about her size. Whitnel, North Carolina.
For the Rich and Privileged • Children of these families were viewed entirely differently. They were members of families with power and prestige. • However, the economic source of power and prestige is not just based on income primarily, but the ownership of capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation). • Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers' goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing.
The wealth of the period is highlighted by the American upper class' opulence, but also by the rise of American philanthropy (referred to by Andrew Carnegie as the "Gospel of Wealth") that used private money to endow thousands of colleges, hospitals, museums, academies, schools, opera houses, public libraries, symphony orchestras, and charities.
Understanding American society at that time will help you to appreciate the clientele of Sargent.
John Singer Sargent .. • Dismissing his contemporaries’ sentimental approach to childhood as a period of lost innocence, Sargent approached his youthful sitters directly, painting them naturalistically and with a keen, psychologically penetrating eye.
His many portraits of the young heirs of America’s upper class also helped to further the artist’s career, pleasing conservative critics and reassuring future patrons who might harbor some lingering doubts as to whether they wanted to submit themselves to Sargent’s forceful brushwork and bravura technique.
Sargent’s portrait of the young Homer Saint-Gaudens, the son of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Robert Shaw Memorial), and his mother Augusta, a cousin of Winslow Homer (The Veteran in a New Field), is an intimate portrait for a friend, not a commission that paid the bills.
Sargent first encountered Saint-Gaudens in Paris in 1878. • When the artists met again in New York in 1890, Saint-Gaudens expressed interest in sculpting an image of Sargent’s sister Violet and the painting was done in the spirit of an exchange.
Nonetheless, the fact that Sargent preferred a generic title, Portrait of a Boy, to the specific name of the child, and excluded his mother’s name entirely may indicate the artist’s desire to elevate his depiction of Homer Saint-Gaudens to a universal statement about the nature of boys (or perhaps just American ones).
In Portrait of a Boy, ten-year-old Homer confronts the artist and viewer head-on and eye to eye with a bored, yet penetrating glance, while behind him, and painted in a more summary manner, Augusta is absorbed in reading.