Friday, 24 June 2011

Sargent's Children

John Singer Sargent is mainly famous for his portraits - the beautiful Lady Agnew and the louche Madame X spring immediately to mind when his name is mentioned. Far more interesting to me are his paintings of children: in particular the Pailleron siblings, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit and the two Barnard girls lighting lanterns in their garden.

Sargent's children are not sentimental or naively charming. He depicted them as individuals, to be accepted as unique and independent personalities, eschewing the usual conventions of expressing their innocence and purity.Above all, his children are not "cute", like Millais' "Cherry Ripe" and "Bubbles", nor indeed like any of Renoir's lovely children.

"Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron" was painted in 1881, in their Paris apartment. Sargent, an expatriate American, spent much of his life in Paris and only moved his studio to London after the "Madame X" scandal. But that is another story.

The Pailleron children evince no childish appeal - they look haughtily at the viewer. They display no signs of affection or awareness of each other: it is almost as if Sargent painted two portraits on the same canvas rather that a double portrait of siblings. Marie-Louise is entirely self-possessed and looks almost regal, seated on her pile of oriental carpets. Her father remarked that she looks like "Joan of Arc hearing the voices".

The painting was a critical success at the 1881 Salon - people found it fascinating and read different narratives into it, despite the artist's efforts at keeping it ambiguous. "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" shares this tendency of the viewers to read drama into it, to an even greater degree. It almost seems to me like the Rorschach Test: an essentially neutral image on which the viewer projects what is in their own psyche.

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" is a very powerful image. Despite the minimal environment and the absence of "props" on which to hang a narrative, this haunting and enigmatic painting has inspired a multitude of psychological interpretations. Some even postulate that Sargent depicts in it his uncanny premonition of the girls' future spinsterhood. (None of them married.)

No surprise that many of these psychological interpretations look for sexual connotations. (Thank you, Sigmund!) I for one refuse to accept that this picture proves poor old Sargent to be a paedophile, as art historian David Lubin would have us believe! Even Sister Wendy puts a psychological spin on it, looking at the painting as "an image of children lost, isolated from one another, and homeless in their own home." The very title is not exempt: Lubin says it "suggests the possessive power of the father" and he is not alone in commenting on the absence of the mother's name.

The picture is seven foot square, a very imposing presence. It hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, to which the Misses Boit donated it in 1919, together with the tall Japanese vases that now stand on either side of it. Visitors to the museum, some of whom come great distances especially to see it, spend more time with "The Daughters …" than with any of the other paintings in the collection. People respond emotionally to it: some viewers weep.

The girls are depicted in the front hall of their Paris apartment, unfurnished but for two enormous Japanese vases. The Boit family travelled back and forth across the Atlantic from Boston to spend half of each year in Paris. Amazingly, the two fragile and valuable giant vases survived at least fourteen crossings, with nothing but minimal damage to the delicate fluted rims, in the days before the miracle of bubblewrap and polystyrene chips.

The closest to a conventional portrait in the painting, is that of Julia (4), who sits in the foreground in a clear and even light. Mary Louisa (8), stands against the wall to the left, and the two older girls, Florence (12) and Jane (14), are further back, in shadow and not so clearly visible, especially Jane, who is leaning back against a vase, in profile. In the absence of other furniture, the effect of the children being dwarfed by the vases makes for a fantasy effect, evocative of Alice in Wonderland drinking the potion that made her shrink.

The asymmetrical placement of the figures is nevertheless carefully balanced by Sargent's use of light and shade, and of patterns and shapes. The bright figure of Mary Louisa on the left is balanced by the vase and red screen on the right, Julia on her carpet is anchored by the bright reflection of the window in the mirror at the back, and acts as a counterweight to the figures of the two older sisters in the middle distance.

Sargent prided himself on his technical ability with white-on-white, and in this picture he pulls out all the stops, unerringly painting the modulations of all the gradations of light on the starched white pinafores.

Sargent knocked off this picture in only 45 days, and first exhibited it at the Petit Gallery, where its unconventional appearance received mixed reviews. He then exhibited it at the Paris Salon in 1883, with the same result. It was not well received in London, the following year. British viewers considered it "beastly French" and voted it the worst painting of the year in a newspaper poll.

French and English aesthetic standards differed vastly, and Sargent decided to establish himself in London by creating a work that was more acceptable to the English taste. It was important to him to establish himself in London as he had rather burnt his boats in Paris over the scandalous "Madame X" thing.

Sargent achieved his object in spectacular fashion with Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a portrait of Polly and Dolly Barnard. (Honestly - some parents!) Children in a traditional English garden, none of that beastly dark French interior nonsense: London loved it.

Did they not notice how similar it is to the despised "Daughters of EDB"? The ambiguity of scale - the tall lilies, like the vases in "Daughters", tower over the girls; both are studies of light: reflections and half-lights in a French interior, twilight and lamplight in a garden; in both the portraits are secondary to the composition; the girls in both are dressed in white and are posed asymmetrically.

Erica Hirshler calls it "a translation of his portrait of the Boit girls from a French vocabulary into English terms."

I have only been able to scratch the surface of this fascinating subject, but I can highly recommend "Sargent's Daughters" by Erica E Hirshler, from which I gleaned a lot of my information. It is available for loan at the Whitehorse Manningham Libraries.

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