In the 1880s, early in John Singer Sargent's career, he confronted a dilemma when painting children's portraits for wealthy English patrons. The artist, born in Italy to American parents, had studied art in Paris then practiced in France. But his then-audacious portrait of an expatriate woman, “Madame X,” forced him to migrate to England, where the choice of child portraiture proved a decisive step in his career. But should he continue along the line of the sentimentalizing portraits fashionable at the time? It might earn him a pretty penny. Or should he break out into new territory guided by his own tastes and wish to experiment in such new techniques as Impressionism?

Sargent chose the latter course, with a bow now and then to the former. The result was a complete success, benefiting both pocketbook and reputation. From there Sargent would move on to other subjects, including adult portraits, landscapes and paintings with figures in them. He established himself as one of the period's greatest portrait painters. His portraits are still in great demand today. Witness the November sale by Sotheby's of “Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife,” which garnered $8.8 million.

Forty of Sargent's paintings are on display until Jan. 16 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. One of the most striking, achieved in 1882 before his move to England, was “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” Boit was a friend of Sargent's, “a gentleman artist and American cosmopolite,” according to the Brooklyn Museum's catalogue.1

The setting for the Boit daughters is thought to be the foyer of the family's Parisian apartment. Mysteriously posed, three figures, their pinafores and starched dresses, blending in fearlessly with the dark, ambiguous spaces of the large rooms, stare calmly out at us; the fourth, turned sideways, presumably gazing at one sister. Viewing this mysterious group portrait, we are mesmerized by a world both offered and withheld, a world implied, a world only they know about and we are privileged, for an impressionistic instant, to enter.

A slight distance is also an effective ploy in Sargent's “Essie, Ruby, and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer,” painted in 1902 and usually housed in London's Tate Gallery. At the time, it was unusual to portray wealthy and prominent Jews. Wertheimer was a noted, successful British art collector and dealer. Sargent gazed deeply into this private world and found the distinctly individual from the stereotyped or merely sociological.

Children are themselves a legacy, of course, and many of these portraits of children became valuable objects to bestow on future generations. Some have been held tightly in private collections; others have been bequeathed as precious additions to museums great and small. (The Boit daughters — Florence, Jane, Julia, Louisa and Maria, gave their group portrait to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in memory of their father.) Each is a story in a nutshell, the encapsulation of the destiny of the progeny of a privileged few.

The social positions and prominence of the families weigh on Sargent's young sitters. In time, according to the show's catalogue, they would become bankers, industrialists, art collectors, politicians, publishers, great scholars and sportsmen. Many were wounded or killed in World War I; several committed suicide. Some women are remembered only because of their marriages, but among the girls Sargent painted are philanthropists such as Caroline Van Cott Burch (“Cara”) and the novelist Mary Louise Pailleron (shown with her brother) as well as Alisa Marian Holden, a prize-winning radiologist.

Sargent's paintings are taken to be in the main optimistic, a reassurance, of a humanistic future. Usually shunning props such as hobby horses and toys common in representations of children during the Victorian period, he manages to give some of his sitters a startling and — one might argue — somewhat unearned monumentality: Dorothy in her oversize hat; the slightly formidable Caspar Goodrich, an admiral's son; Cara Burch with her sharp yet obedient demeanor; and Elsie Palmer, a general's daughter displaying a regal, wide-eyed vitality, remain memorable images.

Only at the dawn of the 20th century did childhood begin to be considered as a distinct stage of life; children were no longer thought of as imperfect adults or, conversely, perfect angels. Through the rest of the 20th century, art works capturing young children grew increasingly daring. The Modernist Kees van Dongen's portrait of his daughter Dolly van Dongen in a sailor's suit (1912) confronts us headlong with an enigmatic invitation of a wavy-haired Marlene Dietrich in mannish clothes. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Polish/French artist Balthus presented surrealistic fantasies of young girls in seductive poses who yet retain their utter innocence. More recently, American photographer Sally Mann's highly controversial, stark photographs of her own children posed nude, unabashedly reveal rather than hide the attractive adolescents they will soon become.

But back in Sargent's day, it was daring enough just to show children, fully dressed, as interesting individuals.
Lynne Lawner